The land of spices: a novel

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Doubleday, Doran & company, inc., 1941 - History - 318 pages
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The Land of Spices (Virago modern classics)

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Set within the austere world of an Irish convent, 1941's Land of Spices matches Helen, a Mother Superior feeling stymied by her monastic existence, with Anna Murphy, a bright young girl on the cusp ... Read full review

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The Land of Spices occupies two very important and two very distinct places in my literary bookshelf. As an academic, The Land of Spices is a fascinating window into the world of both early twentieth-century Ireland as well as the world of the Irish Free State on the eve of deValera's Bunreacht na hÉireann. O'Brien establishes a phenomenal contrast between the promise of young Anna Murphy's undetermined future and the over-determination the new Constitution offers women in the Free State. At it's most basic, The Land of Spices is a bildungsroman that follows the early-development of the precocious Anna during her time at a convent school in Mellick. In this respect, the most obvious comparison is to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; indeed, these comparisons are valuable, offering a uniquely feminist and queer critique of Joyce's masculine priesthood of the artist. O'Brien's feminism is on display unabashedly. But The Land of Spices does perfectly fit into the traditional bildungsroman category. A valuable question is who indeed is the protagonist of the novel: obviously, Anna comes to mind, but the figure of the Reverend Mother must also be entertained. Reverend Mother operates as a constant criticism of the close-minded cultural nationalism on full display throughout deValera's Ireland.
On a more personal level, however, The Land of Spices always jockeys for the pole position in the list of my favourite Kate O'Brien works. I must attribute this to the fact that it was the first Kate O'Brien I ever read. Serendipitously, Anna's development mirrored so closely my own during my semester at the University of Limerick that I cannot help but favour this novel. During my own extended period of existential growth, Anna Murphy's struggles to determine her own future and to protect that future from the designs of family, church, and society rang true. As such, on an emotional level, I cannot recommend O'Brien's The Land of Spices more vigourously.


The F1rst Chapter The Holy Habit
The Second Chapter Vocation 02
The Th1rd Chapter In the Parlour 35

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