In Alice McDermott’s Novel, A Cloistered Life Blows Open

It’s the convent laundry that provides the setting for some of McDermott’s most vivid and arresting descriptions. Like Homer in the “Iliad,” with his catalog of ships, she presents us with a list of the riches of the convent laundress’s magic potions: “Bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightware resist fire, brewed coffee to darken the Sisters’ stockings and black tunics, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric…. She had an encyclopedic understanding of how to treat stains. Tea: Borax and cold water. Ink: milk, salt and lemon juice. Iodine: chloroform. Iron rust: hydrochloric acid. Mucus: ammonia and soap. Mucus tinged with blood (which she always greeted with a sign of the cross): salt and cold water.”

Alongside these litanies, McDermott inserts unforgettable details. Sister Illuminata, the laundress, has a “right index finger marked with the shining oval of a testing-the–iron scar.” The nun carves toys out of ivory soap to entertain little Sally, but these are a worry for her mother: When the child rubs her eyes with fingers coated with soap, wild tears ensue.

The teenage Sally’s sheltered, almost cloistered life is blown apart on the train trip she takes from New York to Chicago on her way to enter the convent she has decided to join. In enumerating the orders of nuns she has to choose from, McDermott provides another marvelously evocative litany of names: “The Little Sisters of the Assumption.… The Sisters of Divine Compassion, of Divine Providence. … the Daughters of Wisdom. The Daughters of Charity. The Sisters of Charity.… The Visitation Nuns. The Presentation Nuns. The Handmaids of the Holy Child.”

The train Sally boards seems to be a branch of the Hieronymus Bosch Railroad Company, providing McDermott ample opportunity to display her gift for atmospheric evocation. Taking her…

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