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/

 

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“Getting an abortion in 1953 wasn’t that easy.”

In 1953 Frau Bienkowski’s friend, who was having an affair with a married man, got pregnant. Though she’d had abortions before, she couldn’t get one this time. She had a baby daughter.

The man left his wife. Frau Bienkowski advised her friend not to marry the man. But she did.

After a few years they moved from Berlin to the south of Germany, where his family was from. Frau Bienkowski didn’t like the man. He wasn’t very nice and he drank a lot. He had other children too. Frau Bienkowski and her friend fell out over him for a while.

A few weeks ago, when it was Frau Bienkowski’s birthday, the woman called her.

She’s 89 now and her husband is dead. But the daughter grew up to be a wonderful woman.

“I said to her,” said Frau Bienkowski, prodding her fork into her kiwi cake, “I said, you went through a terrible few years. But look what you’ve got now. A wonderful daughter.”

It all turned out for the best, Frau Bienkowski said. Now she has a diligent daughter – a medical assistant – to take care of her in old age.

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about abortion. I told her it was illegal in Ireland. She had heard about the case of Savita Halappanavar.

Even though her friend now has a lovely daughter to take care of her in old age and her own beloved son died, Frau Bienkowski, 94, and I, seventy years her junior, agreed that Ireland should legalise abortion, and not just if a woman tells three doctors she’s suicidal.

When Frau Bienkowski was young, the pill wasn’t available. “You had to be really careful,” she said.

I told her that when my mother came to Ireland, people went to Georgian houses where doctors illicitly provided them with condoms.

“Contraception is probably still forbidden in Ireland,” Frau Bienkowski said, laughing.

I assured her that, thankfully, it was not.

But I told her that women go to England to get abortions. “Oh, is it legal there?” Frau Bienkowski asked. For her, England and Ireland are pretty much one.

“I’m surprised there’s such a demand for abortion these days though,” Frau Bienkowski said. “With so much contraception available.”

Frau Bienkowski and I talked about men. She knew several who were serially unfaithful.

I said I didn’t like people who wanted to have an exclusive partner and also lots of secret ones. I said I could understand people wanting to have sex with lots of different people, and liking open relationships. But that deceit drove me up the wall.

Frau Bienkowski agreed.

Then she asked: “So how are things with Andrew? What’s the story with his plans?”

“I have good news,” I said.

She looked intently at me. “Yes?”

“He’s moving to Berlin!” I said.

“That’s to my advantage,” she said.

Here eyes were sparkling. “That means you’re staying!”

“It sure does,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

“That’s to my advantage,” she said again.

Holy Smoke

An automatic door slides me into the entrance lobby of the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street. The Virgin Mary greets me, enormous and plastic. To my right there is a blue tank. A sign stuck on it with sellotape reads ‘Holy Water’. On the walls, behind grubby plastic covers are newspaper cuttings: the round wrinkled face and soft eyes of Mother Teresa, who visited the Church in 1993 and the story of the statue of Mary, which a priest salvaged from a local second hand store in the 1880s. I follow the arrows (they are blue-tacked to the walls) and find St Valentine’s heart, encased in a carved golden box. I wonder who the last person to look inside of it was and at the logistics of its sacred transport.

Inside the Church a hundred candles glisten. An old man shuffles to light one and in a far corner a foreign girl reads quietly to herself a biblical text in a language I don’t understand. Dotted among the pews, the backs of old women are bent in prayer.

 Outside on the street are mothers with cigarettes clasped between their lips pushing babies in pre Celtic tiger buggies. Shops that sell envelopes and fairy liquid, plastic toys and wall clocks are squeezed between modest coffee shops. Red meat hangs unceremoniously in the windows of the butchers. A man turns into a dimly lit bookie, where scrunched up scraps of paper lie discarded on the floor.

It is 11 May 2010, a Tuesday afternoon. Cameron crafts Clegg’s concessions while Brown tells his little sons that they are moving house.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said last night that there are still those in the Church who would rather not see the truth emerge. The cloud of volcanic ash lifts its way beyond Irish airspace. Gum decorates the dusty street. The automatic door slides closed, aloof from it all.

Nun The Wiser

A google image search of ‘nun’ reveals a plethora of results: some humorous, some sordid and some artistic. After all, the ‘veiled’ has a tendency to appeal to the imagination. A veiled remark can cause consternation and when an identity is unveiled its suggestive power is lost. Ireland may not experience the image of a nun as pervasively as it once did but she remains a solid presence in the consciousness of the population. Maeve Binchy who was educated at the Convent of the Holy Child in Killarney realised that “nuns are great box office material” and added that “people are very entertained by nuns’ stories and we all make them much more horrific than they were”. The inclination is to view nuns as characters in costume rather than women in a lifelong habit.

I bear this in mind as I climb the steps into a grand Georgian Convent House where I am to meet Sister Bernadette who entered the sisterhood 48 years ago, at the tender age of 18.

She exudes an extraordinary dignity and is not dressed in a veil, or any form of religious garment. She welcomes me with unconditional warmth and I sense only the smallest trace of guardedness. I am surprised by the surroundings of the convent house. There are no dark corners and no hard wooden benches. All is bright, colourful, cosy. She leads me downstairs to a beautiful basement sitting room where she has prepared a tray of tea and muffins. I sit down and we talk. Not as a prying journalist to a religious instructor but as a young woman to an older and wiser one.

Sister Bernadette had known from the age of 13 that she wanted to become a nun. But what effect did this decision have on her family- especially her brother and two sisters? “I suppose they would have missed me a bit”, she considers modestly. There were four or five from her class who took the same route. “It was an option”, she says simply.

It is an extraordinary decision to make at 18 and one that puts today’s drama of filling out the CAO form into perspective. She agrees that the present-day 18 year-old is far ‘younger’ than it was in generations past. Nevertheless she muses, “It is a time of searching”. Hers was a life-changing decision. Was she not scared? When she made her final vow: yes, a little bit.

Having trained as a primary school teacher, she spent many years teaching at the school attached to the convent. She would encourage all incoming sisters to pursue some form of study or training before entering an order. Her approach is both practical and honest and she doesn’t shroud her life in a religious mystique. I ask her if she would encourage a young woman today to become a nun. She pauses. “It’s a question we ask ourselves constantly”.

The honesty of the response hits hard. I consider the religious outlook of my contemporaries. Would there be any candidates for the religious life? Of the young people I associate with, some are born-again Christians that believe the world was created in seven days somewhere around 6000 years ago. Others are atheists, ardent in their non- belief. Most are just not sure. In our media-driven, western world, we have the opportunity to challenge the meta-narratives in which the generations before us were steeped. At least, we like to think so.

The conversation moves to the place of religion in global politics. I mention Tony Blair’s recent conversion to Roman Catholicism and the constant reference to God in the rhetoric of the candidates in the American election. Is it dangerous for the world’s leaders to bring God into politics? “It’s hard to know”, she says. “On one hand, it is good that they stand up for what they believe”. She points out that Americans have a much more public outlook to faith: “In Ireland, faith is a more private matter”.

However ‘private’ faith may be, the convent setting surely organises its routine around it. So what does the daily life of a nun entail? Sister Maura, a Belfast-based nun with whom I speak on the phone explains that “it varies from convent to convent”. She rises at around 6.30 and engages in “some light exercise before meditating for an hour”. The sisters then pray and have breakfast together. She is a trained teacher and counsellor and spends two days a week working with the community. There is regular communication with their sisters in England and America and at the end of each month regional assemblies are held where themes such as communication and leadership are discussed. She and others are interested in broadening the idea of ‘vocation’ to include the secular professions.

I ask her whether her order has any new incumbents. “There is a young woman about to join us”, she tells me. What must she do to become a nun?

First she must pursue a period of candidacy that can last anything from 9 months to 2 years. Interestingly, she must also pass a medical and psychological assessment.

As a ‘novitiate’ she spends two years living in a convent after which she makes her first professions. The final profession usually takes place a year or two after the first profession. She stresses that the woman may pursue training for other qualifications during this time.

The idea of experiencing life beyond the convent walls was fuelled by Vatican II, Sister Bernadette tells me. With greater emphasis on free- thinking in the Roman Catholic Church, a spirit of independence among its followers was incited. Herself far from single-minded, Sister Bernadette has certainly not been shielded from the world. She speaks of her experience as a missionary in Georgia after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. There she had to cope with a language barrier and the reality that there already existed the well-established Orthodox religion. She cites the appeal of music in establishing congregations. “The organ was one of the biggest appeals to new members”. For her, there are no limits to the art forms that should be executed in the expression of faith- so long as rituals are maintained.

After an hour’s chat and still comfortable in my squishy armchair in the convent house, I finish my tea and thank Sister Bernadette for her time. As I am leaving, she offers me an impromptu tour of the building. In the room next to the magnificent drawing room is a chapel. She opens the door tentatively. We poke our heads inside, only to retract them quickly as we find a nun sitting there in contemplative silence. walk home in the crisp autumnal air and look back at the convent house with a new, unveiled reverence.