My second read for Reading Ireland Month, and like “How Green was my Valley”, I took it on holiday, though it was my plane home read and I finished it at home. 

I bought this one in Stratford last October when I met Scott and Andy from America. The books I bought then I shared in this blog post and I haven’t read and reviewed any others of them yet.

Kate O’Brien – “The Land of Spices”

(18 October 2022, Oxfam Books, Stratford-upon-Avon)

From the beginning, chilled more than she knew by the shock which drove her to the purest form of life that could be found, and hardened in all her defences against herself by the sympathetic bleakness of Sainte Fontaine, she grew into that kind of nun who will never have to trouble about the vow of poverty, because poverty is attractive to her fastidiousness; who has looked chastity in the eyes with exaggerated searching, and finding it in the perverse seduction she needed at a moment of flight from life, accepted it one and for all with proud relief; but who sill have to wrestle with obedience. Not that she does not understand its place in the ideal, or that specific acts of submission trouble her. But because it is a persistently intellectual sacrifice, it is always an idea. (p. 19)

Like “Small Things Like These”, this book centres around a convent in Ireland, however this is a positive story with no laundries, just a school and a community of nuns, their mother convent based in Belgium and Mother Mary Helen, an English woman raised on the Continent who is mistrusted and somewhat feared by the mostly Irish nuns and school girls and the priests who are associated with the school.

The book follows both a linear narrative and a non-linear one, as we follow Anna Murphy’s progress through the school (starting very young, the youngest girl in the school) and dot back and forth through Mary Helen’s life so we only discover mid-way through the book what compelled her to rush into a vocation aged 18. Both women experience tragic losses and both experience spiritual development in this very subtle book, which has no sentimentality or melodrama, but a close and careful look at the petty jealousies and bad behaviour of nuns, school girls and old girls and the ways in which they can console themselves.

There are lovely, touching moments of friendship and fierce defences of what is right: I don’t know much about Kate O’Brien but Clare Boylan in her introduction names her an unsentimental feminist, and there is a strong thread supporting women’s education and right to have their own freedom running through the book. Different kinds of moralities are presented, with Anna’s brother giving his opinion on the nature of their father’s alcoholism and Mary Helen’s father presenting an atheistic view of the world, which makes for interesting contrasts but no lectures or over-philosophising. Another thread is the loss of innocence, again shadowed by the two main characters.

It’s a gently paced book with some remarkable scenes and I very much enjoyed it: I might not have picked it off the charity shop shelves without this challenge to read it for, and I’m glad I did.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy746Books and it was the second of the two I had hoped to read for the challenge, and completes my Reading Wales / Reading Ireland double challenge with two books for each. It also fills in a year of my Reading the Century project, which hardly ever happens these days!

In another Bookish Beck Serendipity moment, this and “How Green Was My Valley” were published within 3 years of each other (1942 and 1939 respectively) and were set around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, not a gap I encounter frequently – I also note I chose to share a quote from p. 19 of each book!