In coversation with The New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, National Book Award-winning author Alice McDermott discusses The Ninth Hour, a portrait of the Irish-American experience in 1940s and 1950s Brooklyn.

On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove―to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife―“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

In Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century, decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence, and yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives―testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour is a crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She is also the author of My Life In Middlemarch and recently contributed a foreword to the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Middlemarch. She lives in Brooklyn.