STARRED REVIEW
October 2017

Behind the doors of the convent

By Alice McDermott
Review by

Alice McDermott’s seven previous novels, including the 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, have portrayed with acute perception the many aspects of the Irish-American experience. Her latest is a beautifully crafted depiction of a cloister of nuns in early 20th-century Brooklyn as they move in and out of the lives of a young Irish widow and her daughter.

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Alice McDermott’s seven previous novels, including the 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, have portrayed with acute perception the many aspects of the Irish-American experience. Her latest is a beautifully crafted depiction of a cloister of nuns in early 20th-century Brooklyn as they move in and out of the lives of a young Irish widow and her daughter.

The novel opens as Sister St. Saviour, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, is on her way back to the convent after spending the afternoon collecting alms at the neighborhood Woolworth’s. She is summoned by police to a tenement apartment—the scene of a fire caused by the apparent suicide of a young Irish immigrant. She uses the influence she’s gained from 37 years of service to have the man buried in the nearest Catholic cemetery, and then tends to the widow, Annie, who is expecting a baby the following summer.

Annie is quickly brought into the fold of the Sisters of the Sick Poor and given a job in the convent’s laundry under the tutelage of Sister Illuminata, who sees godliness in every clean sheet she washes, every black tunic she irons. And when the baby, Sally, is born, the young Sister Jeanne gladly takes over her care while Annie works nearby.

As the years go by, Annie ventures into a relationship with a married man, a fact not hidden from the Sisters but somehow condoned. And Sally, who is comfortable with the daily life of the convent and her ministrations to the sick as she accompanies Sister Jeanne on her daily rounds, gradually begins to visualize becoming a nun herself.

McDermott illuminates every­day scenes with such precise, unadorned descriptions that the reader feels he or she is there, hidden in the background. The agony of the sick in body or mind, the guilt over ignoring church doctrine, the power of love to erase loneliness—each is treated with McDermott’s exquisite language, tinged with her signature wit. Her latest is highly recommended—a novel to savor and to share.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Ninth Hour

The Ninth Hour

By Alice McDermott
FSG
ISBN 9780374280147

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