Their spines contain their highlight reel

Here I am on a Monday morning in the Staatsbibliothek.

With my folders and flashcards.

And the Microsoft Word document open before me.

Surrounded by faces scowling in concentration, I am blank as a slate.

Here, where minds bathe in luxury, anything is possible.

All it takes is the scratch of a pen, the tap of a key, the turn of a page.

“Read over document as a netural, distant reader might,” it says on my to-do-list.

I breathe in. And out. And in again as I begin:

It was the day everything began to change and bit by bit, the threads of Dora Danckelmann’s past became unraveled…..

I scroll through the document.

Then 40 minutes later, the verdict.

The neutral, distant reader shakes their head apologetically.

They are neither kind nor unkind.  Neither my champion nor my challenger.

Their task is indepenent arbitration.

The words (all 54,375 of them) the reader says carefully, refuse to dance together.

Some shoot out in vulgar bursts. And others crawl too carefully along.

Too uncertain and at once too brash to form a bond.

Less than the sum of their parts.

I thank the reader and survey the truth:

The story has no flow. In 54,375 ways, it has steered off course.

A sorry tribute to its source.

It doesn’t work. Not because I am in the mood for self-destruction; but because it’s the plain and simple truth.

My story isn’t any good.

Not yet.

The shelves around me bulge with books. Thousands of them, forced into neat rows.

Like soldiers in waiting.

Their spines contain their highlight reel. The anguish that made them, rubbed away like sadness on your Facebook timeline.

Their polished boots ready for inspection, ready to deny the battles they’ve seen.

Like them, I’ve got no choice but to soldier on.

54,375 ways I’ve gone wrong. 54,375 ways to make it right.

One word; one battle at a time.

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Why you must read The Land of Spices

In my final year of university I took a class on Irish women’s writing. Among the works on the reading list was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices. Years later, whenever anyone asks me to name the book I wish I’d written, it’s the title that slips effortlessly off my tongue.

Why?

Because it’s everything a novel should be: beautifully crafted and full of psychological insights. Tender yet unsentimental; political but not polemical.

Published and promptly banned in Ireland in 1941, it’s the story of a nun whose life is unalterably shaped by a scene she encounters as a young woman. It’s also about how a little girl with a troubled background awakens in her the very sensibilities from which she has tried to flee.

Re-reading this book as I try my hand at writing something of my own has been a humbling experience. How does she do that? I ask myself. How does she jump across time so smoothly? How does she find the words to describe those micro-moments that occur as we assess each other during a conversation? How does she examine a distant relationship with such subtlety? How does she manage to convey the landscape of Irish nationalism so unflinchingly?

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I don’t have the answers; if I did, I’d have written my own Land of Spices. But I do have some relatable quotations to share, which I hope will spark your desire to read this thoroughly perfect book:

When you feel guilty for judging someone harshly, then overthink the situation and appear disingenuous and defensive when you apologize:

She was ashamed of her earlier severity with him … She racked her brain for a way of expressing friendliness and repentance …. But he thought he saw a further thrust at himself in this self-explanation – and he was still rankling with dislike of her.

When blind faith assaults the intellect:

That was the point of the vow, she would tell herself ironically- for can there be obedience without conscious subjection of the brain?

On being alone in grief:

She stared ahead at nothing visible to others.

On the paradoxes of Irish identity:

The Irish liked themselves and throve on their own psychological chaos … They were an ancient martyred race, and of great importance to themselves – that meagre handful of conceptions made a history, made a problem – and made them at once unconquerable and a little silly.”

On fighting the urge to interfere and allowing a person to heal themselves:

For she was confident that a soul, left to itself, has good chances of recovering in some measure from any sickness – whereas rash manipulation may establish a deformity.

In the end, The Land of Spices  was banned because of a single, eleven-word sentence.

It’s a pretty essential one: not the kind you can leave out.

But don’t worry: I won’t share it here. (Spoiler alert)

I guess you’ll just have to pick the book up yourself – and enjoy the exquisite writing of a woman who deserves pride of place in Ireland’s literary canon.

 

*** PS – For anyone who wants to see and hear Kate O’Brien, this from RTE’s archive might be of interest: http://www.rte.ie/archives/2016/0201/764550-kate-obrien-the-early-years/