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Review: The Land of Spices, by Kate O'Brien


Pages: 285
Original date of publication: 1941
My edition: 1990 (Virago Modern Classics)
Why I decided to read: read it for All Virago/All August
How I acquired my copy: Ebay, June 2010


Set in an Irish convent school in the early years of the 20th century, The Land of Spices is a novel that covers the school career of Anna Murphy, who comes to Compagnie de la Sainte Famille at the ago of six. She attracts the attention of the Reverend Mother, an Englishwoman who watches Anna from afar during the eight or ten years that Anna remains at the school.

I’ve had good luck and bad with Kate O’Brien’s novels; I disliked The Ante Room but loved Mary Lavelle. The Land of Spices falls into the “love” category for me. I wasn’t sure that a novel set in a convent school would be my cup of tea, but the novel in a greater sense is about human relationships, not just religion and spiritually. It’s also obviously a coming of age novel, about how one girl changes and adapts to her surroundings, even though her home life isn’t ideal. There’s an interesting contrast with the life of Reverend Mother, whose past as Helen Archer is revealed bit by bit. They have an unspoken bond with one another, even though Anna doesn’t realize it. There are some really beautiful observations here about the impact that two totally different people can have on one of another.

My only problem with the book is that throughout the book there are excerpts of letters written in French and other languages, which reveal key plot points but are kind of meaningless if you don’t speak those languages. But in all, this is a really powerful book.

Comments

Lisa May said…
This was the first of her novels that I read, and none of the others have quite measured up to this one. Isn't Mary Lavelle meant to be sort of a sequel, with different characters - if that makes sense? I've had it on my TBR pile for years but haven't read it yet.

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