Thursday, February 23, 2017

#poweredByindie Review of Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices

I read The Land of Spices over twenty years ago and immediately became a fan of Kate O'Brien's books. Recently I was drawn to read it again and enjoyed it even better the second time around. Once again I was filled with admiration for her style, her beautiful, evocative writing, erudite and dramatic, the depth of her character portrayal, the tautness of the story. Set in an Irish convent school the two main characters are the highly intelligent Reverend Mother Marie-Helene Archer, a rather lonely introspective figure who is daunted by the Irish environment, so rustic and unsophisticated, very different to her cultivated English background. Through her letters to her superior in Belgium we learn that although challenged by it, she is not satisfied with her task as convent head and wishes to be recalled. But when six year old Anna Murphy comes as a boarder to the school because of the unsettled atmosphere at home between her parents, her father who drinks too much and has a roving eye, her mother who thinks it best for her child to go to the nuns who educated her and with whom she has kept in close contact since her schooldays, Reverend Marie-Helene changes her mind, thrust into a protective role towards Anna with whom she identifies, reminded of herself at that age. The child has the same gift for remembering and reciting poetry, the same quest for knowledge. She recalls her own childhood with her erudite father who had early on mapped out a career for her, a college education followed by a brilliant career. At eighteen Helen Archer witnesses a traumatic incident only gradually revealed and it changes the course of her life, causing her to enter the religious order against her father's wishes. As a result the relationship between them is never the same. Mere Marie-Helene has a great influence on Anna's life and supports her against the bias of some of the nuns who, in the name of character building, wish to make humble and submissive the bright, intelligent little girl, as well as the cruel snobbish attitude of one or two of the wealthier pupils who have heard the rumours of her parents' breakup. But most of all Helen Archer influences Anna in her choice of an academic career, encouraging her in face of her grandmother's opposition, for this proud wealthy old lady holds the old fashioned belief that it is only men who should continue on to higher education and a woman's place is in the home as wife and mother. An erudite and compelling book. Now that I am reacquainted with Kate O'Brien I hope to reread more of her work; in particular my favourite set in Spain, Mary Lavelle.

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