The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

Books discussed in this blog generally fall into one of two categories: they are well-known works from earlier times by writers with an established place in the traditional canon (Austen, Dickins, Conrad, etc.); or they are recent works by writers with a reputation as authors of serious fiction.

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) does not fit easily into either category. It was first published in 1940 by an Irish writer who did enjoy a certain literary prestige in her time but who is far from a house name today. The fame she does enjoy is probably due in large part to her reputation as a feminist writer. The feminist publishing house Virago republished The Land of Spices in 2001.

Superficially the book is a school story. It is largely set in an Irish convent boarding school run by a French order of nuns in the early years of the twentieth century. One of its two central characters is a pupil, Anna Murphy, who is sent to the school from a disfunctional home at the exceptionally early age of six. A major concern of the novel concerns Anna's growth and development at the school, in the course of which she learns some hard lessons outside the classroom as well as within it. But unlike most school stories, this is not to any significant degree the story of its central character's interactions with other pupils. Anna is neither isolated nor immensely popular: she never becomes the heroine of the school, and we learn relatively little about schoolgirl friends and enemies.

O'Brien is more concerned about Anna's relationship with her other central character, the school's headmistress, Reverend Mother Marie-Helene Archer. The reverend mother is a highly intelligent women from a cultivated background in England and Belgium who has entered the religious life rather unexpectedly (for her and others) after a traumatic experience that is only gradually revealed. She brings great abilities to her religious career, but finds the task of heading a convent in the rather raw and unsophisticated Irish environment challenging and unsatisfying. Early in the novel we encounter her writing to her superior in Belgium asking to be relieved of the post. In a curious way the six-year-old Anna leads her to change her mind. It is the first of a number of occasions in the novel where one of the two main characters very significantly impacts on the other, and towards the end of the novel Mere Archer intervenes rather more dramatically to ensure that Anna gets the opportunity to go to university in the face of opposition from her domineering grandmother.

This account might well make the novel seem a bit predictable and sentimental: an intelligent teacher recognises intelligence in a young pupil, grows to like her despite their differences in background, age, and status, and eventually enables her to fulfil her potential. The reality in the novel is far more subtle. Reverend mother and pupil do not become close friends and allies: Anna is in fact not especially likeable, and their close interactions are not frequent.

Not all the action takes place in the school. We learn a good deal about Marie-Helene's early life in Belgium, and about the troubled home life of Anna and her relationship with a beloved younger brother. There may be parallels between the two characters,but they are far from obvious.

O'Brien's success lies in her creating of vivid scenes and convincing dialogue, and in her very shrewd and perceptive evocation of upper middle class Catholic Ireland, simultaneously smug and anxious, in the years immediately before the First World War. There are many memorable scenes, some of them very amusing in a quiet way. The book is not without flaws: the lengthy passages in which the characters are analysed can become a bit tedious, and O'Brien makes no concesssions to the linguistically challenged. The German quotations are short, but it is useful (though by no means essential) to have a reading knowledge of French, for several letters between the Irish convent and headquarters in Belgium are in that language and left untranslated.

It is strange to realise now that the novel was controversial, at least in Ireland, when first published. I understand that a copy was formally burnt in the grounds of the convent school O'Brien had attended (and on her experiences of which she drew). There is one brief 'sex scene' of the utmost delicacy, but one suspects the problem was actually the suggestion that the sisters in a convent are capable of jealousies, rivalries, and petty acts of meanness and snobbery.

I found this a beautifully written and evocative book. I believe it deserves to be far better known.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This short novel was first published in 1978 . I remember reading it about then and being very impressed. My recent re-read left me still very impressed but with a different realisation and thoughts about it. I did not remember ironically enough - just how much it was about memory and the need to put aside painful experience and memory in order to survive at times .However I did remember it gave me a strong sense of the survival drive of the main character, Nora, as she reminiscences and brings out the story of herself as a child, a young person, a confident career woman, and lastly as an older woman . The accompanying theme of self realisation and learning is the main thematic thrust of this novel. By comparison with other more recent writers with high reputations Anderson weaves psychological insights in illuminating prose effectively and without didacticism. It is story telling of the first order.

We meet Nora , our first person narrator ,when she is about 70 years of age . She has returned to her childhood home in Queensland after many years living and working in London. As she recovers from pneumonia brought on by her travels she is remembering people and events from her past. Her places of memory are outer Brisbane where she spent her childhood , Sydney where she lived for a few years after her marriage and London where she lived and worked until her return at the age of 70 to her childhood home. Anderson's fine writing illuminates this life and the situations with shining , economical clarity . We get to know Nora as she is growing up and can watch this progress , mistakes etc.

In fact the whole book illustrates a self realisation and insight which Nora is working through - here is just one sentence towards the end of the book which gave me a thrill when I read it . Nora is talking with a visitor , Jack, who mentions a name of someone from her past and she thinks "My globe of memory has given one of its lightning spins, and i am dumbfounded not only by what it shows, but by the fact that it has remained on the dark side for so long". A mystery is beginning to unfold in her mind and we travel with her along the path of memory. The blending of the dialogue Nora has with her visitors over the couple of weeks of her sickness and convalescence , and with her thought processes and observations is the structural basis for the novel and it all works easily and seamlessly for the reader.

Another feature of the book which delighted me is the sense of places in the book and the fine graphic descriptions thereof. Details of natural and built surroundings are an important part of memory for our narrator, thank goodness . For instance, we are treated to a wonderful picture of life in some terraces in the Woolloomoolloo area in the thirties which were home to artists, writers ,dressmakers - men and women living and working in the City of Sydney when King's Cross and the Darlinghurst areas were havens for them in a puritanical town. This is an important learning environment for Nora so that when her sad marriage ends and she sails to London she is open to new friendships and experiences. There is a note at the beginning of the book which as well as saying the characters are imaginative constructions notes "only the houses on the point are taken from life" and Anderson brings those Woolloomoolloo houses on the point to "life". I smiled when i read that information after finishing the book and am grateful for her writing about that era and those places with such sensitivity.

The evocative title ,Tirra Lirra by the River comes from the Tennyson poem The Lady of Shallot and its inclusion in the texts fits the themes of the novel very well. The Lady was required to view the beautiful Lancelot and life through a crystal mirror and Nora , lover of poetry and life learner , is shining the mirror on herself and life and getting "it" in a way. Nora at 70 is a bit curmudgeonly but likeable and along with her resilience maintains humour and an interest in people. The people in her life are well drawn too.

However the character of Nora is central to the story and is a perfect characterisation. This ability to get to the heart of the female persona with empathy but without sentimentality is a feature of first class female writers. In the Australian context I think of Olga Masters, Elizabeth Jolley and Amy Witting - contemporary with Anderson who are a group to conjure with in this regard. They all published in their later years around about the 1960s to 80s and signified a particular flowering of literature in Australia . Their success and abilities co-incided with the womens liberation movement of that time and I believe the social change was an factor in their success and opportunities - their high literary abilities were strictly their own however. It was just fortuitous in time.

Whatever, Tirra Lirra is a strong, evocative , poetically written book of special insight into character,relationships of a wide range ,perceptions, suburban life styles and settings - which has stood the test of time for me.