In this post I discuss two novels featuring murderers made by childhoods spent with flawed mothers, both killing (or, trying to) in an effort at mercy. The first of these novels is by seasoned, treasured, much awarded author, Alice McDermott, and the second is a debut novel by Ali Land.
The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott, Hardcover, 256pp, September 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In the early part of the twentieth century in the Irish Catholic community in Brooklyn, a man’s suicide leaves his pregnant wife to make a life alone for herself and her daughter, the as yet unborn Sally, around whom the remembered story is built. Sister St. Saviour comes upon the scene of the gas oven suicide and resultant fire and begins her efforts to live up to her chosen name, from trying to hide the cause of death so the dead husband might be buried in hallowed ground, to finding work at the convent for the pregnant widow, Annie, who ends up in the laundry room as assistant to curmudgeonly Sister Illuminata, who, along with the other nuns, helps raise Sally from an infant asleep in a basket in the laundry room to a young woman who thinks she hears the calling to serve as sister herself.
There is no question but that Alice McDermott is an author prodigiously gifted at vividly rendered miniatures, delicate, detailed captures of circumstance, character, reality, and emotion that coalesce into a panorama of the human heart. Too, her facility for prose bordering on poetry combined with sentences of such shocking accuracy and truth one nearly gasps with recognition, make for a reading experience akin to literary love-making. Listen:
While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased — to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.
That is undeniably beautiful writing, possessed of a rhythm and music, a few sentences, sculpted into the story of a woman’s soul and life. By the same token, Alice McDermott can sketch with one short sentence everything we need know about a character, as she does about the less introspective, more rigid Sister Lucy:
All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.
That is laugh out loud funny. Especially if one has spent any time in one’s life with nuns. There are the Sister St. Saviour variety and the Sister Lucy variety and Alice McDermott limns both and the experience of the devoted Catholic life with expertise, sympathy, insight, and wisdom. In particular, especially in The Ninth Hour, she explores the conflict between the tenets of the faith as taught by the church, and the challenges of real life, where circumstances sometimes render the commands of the church impractical to impossible to cruel. Alice McDermott explores the compromises made by the faithful and the cost of believing, the burden of sacrifice, and the malleable nature of the definition of right and wrong, what, exactly — or more aptly, inexactly, defines sin.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll only say characters struggle with that existential moment when murder becomes mercy and whether or not the act can ever be forgiven, excused, justified.
All of the qualities Alice McDermott brings to her work make it always worth reading, and The Ninth Hour is no different. However, I found its structure to be problematic. The time jumping as the narrator told a tale passed down through a few generations made it difficult to keep track of characters, who was what to whom when, and the perspective wavering between reverie and documentary was jarring for me. A mosaic is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate the technique, but I felt there was a lack of clarity in the voice because of the piecemeal way the story was told, by which I mean I think the framework made the through-line more difficult to follow than was necessary.
Good Me Bad Me, Ali Land, Hardcover, 338pp, January 2017, Penguin Books Ltd
From Alice McDermott and her Catholic milieu to debut novelist Ali Land and her adolescent mental health mise en scene is less a leap than one might think; this novel also deals with a child brought up in unusual circumstances who is faced with a moral quandary.
Let me begin by saying that the absence of a comma in the title of this novel near drove me to distraction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through reading the book, it came to me that perhaps the author insisted that the point of the story was that there was no clear delineation between the good me and the bad me and so to place a comma in the title would be a betrayal of the gist, the heart of the story. Maybe, maybe not or should I say maybe maybe not? Whichever, I’m going with it.
Annie, 15, has been re-named Milly and placed with a foster family to be therapized before the trial of her serial killer, sexually abusive mother who Annie/Milly turned in for the murder of nine children to which she was witness. Milly’s foster family — psychiatrist dad Mike, overseeing her therapy, and his wife, Saskia, who turns out to have troubles of her own, and their mean girl daughter, Phoebe, who makes it her business to torture and bully Milly, about whose true identity she knows nothing when Annie/Milly arrives — need therapy of their own, plagued by problems Annie/Milly is likely to make worse with her presence.
This is a thriller, one of those page-turners where the past is presented in teasing drips and drabs, and the reader is given to fear along with Annie/Milly whether or not she can escape her mother’s influence, damage, and genetic contribution to who she is, who she might become, and whether any of this will be found out by those in her life.
This is a dark, twisted, creepy tale, compellingly written, very fast-moving, with what sounds a very authentic troubled-adolescent voice which one assumes can be credited to Ali Land’s work as a child and adolescent mental health nurse. Which, like the missing comma in the title, bothered me, because in a world which is currently so full of horrors, hatreds, and monsters, I worried and wondered just how much of the story could be all too real, based on abhorrent, abominable, tragic real-life stories Ali Land was exposed to as a mental health nurse.
So, there it is: a fast read but more than a little disturbing. If you, like me, are given nightmares by child-in-danger stories and ambiguous endings, this is not the novel for you. If you, on the other hand, are not sensitive to that sort of thing and enjoy nothing more than a fast, what’s next, bet I can guess, ohmygod read, this is the book for you.
And there we have it my friends, my two latest reads which — as is so often the case — were somehow connected in theme, all without my knowledge or planning; they both happened to come up on my library hold-list at the same time.
I’m heading into non-fiction next, it’s been too long and the book was recommended by a trusted friend, so, when I return I will be talking about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which I’m beginning as soon as I finish this, bake a cake, and make Sunday dinner for my mom and sister. So, those things are not going to take care of themselves, thus, here I am, going.
P.S. SELF-PROMOTION: I’ve jumped up 10,000+ spots in rankings at Amazon as reviewer to 21,927! [CLICK HERE]! Only last week I was 33,000-something! If you like my recounting of my book reading, and my respect for the art of writing and publishing, it would be great if you could LIKE my Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Too, liking books on Amazon helps the author, helps their numbers and rankings in the mysterious algorithm that is Amazon sales and promotions. So, help the literary world out. Like me. Like books. Now, really, here I am, going.