Friday, 18 September 2009

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

I confess to picking this up because I know that Kate O'Brien was a friend of EMD's in her later years, and then to buying it because it turned out to be about nuns, but I'm very glad I did. O'Brien's novel, set in a fictionalised Limerick at the beginning of the 20th century, deals with the relationship between Mother Mary Helen, Reverend Mother of a Catholic boarding school in a fictionalised Limerick, and Anna Murphy, sent there at the early age of six because her father's drinking is disrupting family life. Reverend Mother, at the start of the novel, considers her work in Ireland to have failed, and doubts her original motivation for becoming a nun. But through her distant and reserved love for Anna, and their evolving friendship, she comes to reconsider her position.

The book is excellent on the politics and diplomacies of the life of a senior nun, managing parents, bishops and her fellow sisters in an atmosphere of self-abnegation and the rejection of pride in her own achievements. While Reverend Mother occupies much of the narrative space, Anna appears regularly as a narrative viewpoint, giving us another perspective on the school and the nuns but also underlining the similarities between her story and Reverend Mother's. The schoolgirls, often ebullient and silly, point up the quietness and restraint of the nuns who care for them. The book is structured around two key events which it would be unfair to new readers to reveal; around these high points the pace of the work is measured, its prose calm and contained, evoking the restraint of convent life.

There is some feminist polemic here regarding the education of women. The young Anna wishes only for time and space in which to think about how she will earn her living, but knows that these are luxuries likely to be denied her by a controlling family. She reckons without the support of Reverend Mother, however. Clare Boylan, in the introduction to this book, suggests that O'Brien's polemic inclinations prevent her from producing a work of art; there probably would have been ways to resolve Anna's story less intrusively, however agreeable the polemic concerned. Having said that, I found the depiction of an older and powerful woman campaigning for the freedom and education of a vulnerable girl very moving. Equally moving is Anna's epiphany, towards the end of the novel, explaining Lycidas to a beautiful but empty-headed fellow pupil. As well as the revelation that the flaw is essential to art and to beauty, this passage seems to me to hint at a sudden realisation of beauty's erotic potential; both understandings appropriate to Anna as she edges into adult life.

There are several other Kate O'Brien novels to look forward to: perfect displacement activity for a newly minted research student.

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