Kate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed, it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.
Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people.
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference. Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected.
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.”
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.”
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.
- Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
- God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
- The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
- The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
- Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
- Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
- The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
- A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
- Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
- Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
- Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
- The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
- Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
- The land of spices, something understood.
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed.