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The Land of Spices

3.9  ·  Rating details ·  362 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
Mere Marie-Helene once turned her back on life, sealing up her heart in order to devote herself to God. Now the formidable Mother Superior of an Irish convent, she has, for some time, been experiencing grave doubts about her vocation. But when she meets Anna Murphy, the youngest-ever boarder, the little girl's solemn, poetic nature captivates her and she feels 'a storm bre ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published May 4th 2006 by Virago (first published 1941)
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Fionnuala
This book was published in 1942 and caused a sensation.
But not exactly the kind of sensation a writer might dream of causing...
No, a sensation among the censorship board so hideous that they banned it for “immorality”.
This beautiful book, because it contained one line that hinted at a way of life that was never then mentioned openly, languished for years unread.
You can read it today however, so all of you who live in times and places where censorship is unknown, run out and grab a copy of th
...more
Kieran Walsh
Jun 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Just like you found $100 in your sock drawer – this is how I feel having finished The Land of Spices. I had heard of Kate O’Brien and seem to remember looking past her books when in college and thinking her as ‘almost famous, tired reading and very much dead’. Two weeks ago I was flipping through the Limerick Compendium Journal and read one of her short stories about a Reverent Mother (from England) who presided over her boarding school experience. The story was so good I went and ordered one of ...more
Margaret
I'm starting to get Kate O'Brien whiplash. I loved As Music and Splendour, bounced off The Ante-Room and didn't finish it, and then loved this one (though I sort of expected to like it, since for some reason I generally do like books about convents). It's an intertwined story of small Anna Murphy, the youngest boarder at an Irish convent school, and Helen, the Mother Superior. As Anna grows up and struggles to find her path in life, her experiences cause Helen to reflect on the experiences which ...more
Granuaille
Sep 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book was banned because of one sentence. And yet that sentence is pivotal, so it could not be omitted.
Thank goodness, the censorship laws have laxed for this is a charming book. The author has created characters who she loves for their flaws as well as their strengths. This is one of the best books for characterisations that I have come across for some time. Their involvement with one another and the different scenarios ring true and invoke true empathy in the reader. I read the introducti
...more
Nicole
Oct 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is a book that I doubt I would have selected to read on my own, and definitely would not have finished without the pressure of an impending midterm to motivate me. It doesn't have a lot of plot, and it is – to be completely honest – a little bit boring.

That having been said, it has some of the most extraordinary characters I've ever read. Both the major and minor characters are extremely well written. I fell in love with them (especially the Mother Reverend and Molly Redmond) in a way that
...more
Cindy
Sep 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. This is a lush, rich book that stays with you long after you've turned the last page. I was assigned this book to read as part of an Irish Literature class, and I am so glad I was introduced to Kate O'Brien. Her pages are filled with words and phrases that quite literally took my breath away. If you love to sink, to melt, into a story; if you love subtle nuances and details, you will love The Land of Spices.
Wayne
Nov 03, 2012 marked it as to-read

Colm Toibin recommended this book in the November Goodreads Newsletter. I admire him as a writer and speaker and book critic.
The responses to this book were very stimulating...so
GIVE IT A GO !!!!
Trisha
Feb 20, 2014 rated it liked it
The Land of Spices, by Kate O’Brien
The title of this book comes from a sonnet by the 17th century English metaphysical poet, George Herbert. The land of spices refers to the inner landscape associated with contemplative prayer and reflection. It’s an apt description for much of what this book is about since it revolves around what’s going on inside the minds of its two central characters - the mother superior of an Irish school for the daughters of middle class families, and one of the students
...more
Nesta Tuomey
Feb 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read The Land of Spices over twenty years ago and immediately became a fan of Kate O'Brien's books. Recently I was drawn to read it again and enjoyed it even better the second time around. Once again I was filled with admiration for her style, her beautiful, evocative writing, erudite and dramatic, the depth of her character portrayal, the tautness of the story. Set in an Irish convent school the two main characters are the highly intelligent Reverend Mother Marie-Helene Archer, a rather lonel ...more
Dee
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a beautiful book! Not much in the way of plot, but the intertwining story of the two main characters, schoolgirl Anna and Revered Mother Helen Archer, is so intimately described that You are drawn into. Incredible to think that this book was once banned, for one very innocuous line, but it's of its time - and none the worse for that!
Emmkay
Aug 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I have a long-held fascination with books and films about nuns, for some reason...this novel, my introduction to Kate O'Brien, was excellent. Published in 1940 and banned in Ireland, this is a subtle and humanistic story about the Mother Superior of an Irish convent school in the early twentieth century. An Englishwoman raised in Belgium, her background and cool demeanour make her a bit of a fish out of water, both interpersonally among the other nuns and the students, as well as in an increasin ...more
Megan
Feb 09, 2013 rated it liked it
This book is more of a character exploration of a Mother Superior at a girls' school in Ireland on the cusp of WWI, and of one of its long-time students. It is gentle, contemplative, and calming. The two main plot twists - the dark and startling discovery that drove Mother Mary Helen Archer into the religious life and the tragedy that severs Anna's ties to her past and home - are not at all surprising. I guessed them well before they occurred. However, the point of the book isn't exactly to be a ...more
Greta
Oct 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A small book store owner in Dublin recommended this book to me and I'm so glad. In the context of the Catholic church still operating most schools in the Republic of Ireland and with largely segregated schools in Northern Ireland along religious lines, The Land of Spices is a likely story for today's young Irish women. Kate O'Brien tells a charming, complicated story.
Allison Long
Oct 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Kate O'Brien completely draws you into this novel about nuns, convent schools and one pupil in particular, Anna. The book deals with several subjects in a way that isn't obvious. I really loved reading this and will read more K. O'Brien in the future (I have another on my desk actually).
Angela Joyce
Jun 26, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: general-fiction
What a strange, uneventful, but incredibly insightful feminist work!
Siobhan Burns
Nov 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
What an odd, beautiful book -- oblique and subtle, and then moments that are just heartbreaking.
Glen
Jul 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I am not Catholic, and so the plot line of a focus on an elder nun and a young student in an Irish convent school was less than scintillating for me. I took the plunge however based on Clare Boylan's assessment of it as "a novel with perfect pitch" and found her judgment to be spot-on in this case. There are the usual catalysts for dramatic pathos--sex, death, rivalry, love, etc.--but overall the tone of the novel is quiet, subdued, but lyrically ...more
Ruthmarie
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This one isn't for everybody, but it resonated with me because of my convent school background and Irish Catholic heritage. Those are definitely things of the past! There is a coldness to the prose, something almost nineteenth or early twentieth century in its style. But the themes of belief, love, jealousy, vocation, parochialism, nationalism, the power of poetry are front and center at all times, and the major characters memorable (although I admit I had a hard time keeping track of the variou ...more
Jane De vries
Oct 08, 2017 rated it liked it
It is not every day that one has the chance to read about life in an Irish convent. People are fascinated by nuns and the reasons why one would choose such a life.

The high point of the novel was the description of the traumatic event which encouraged Helen to enter a cloister in the first place. I wonder if this is common - that there is some defining event in one's personal life which leads to a religious vocation.

Well written and even though I appreciate being introduced to a new novelist, I d
...more
Joe
Jul 05, 2017 rated it liked it
The story was good and the book was well written but after 300 pages I never really felt that I knew any of the characters. There are certain points when the author starts to show some insight into some of the individuals in the story, but then backs off and never fully develops them. It was entertaining to read, but not gripping and a little bit disappointing from what I had hoped it would be.
Daniela
One of the best books I have ever read. Anna and The Reverend Mother are two of the most enticing characters ever.

I discovered Kate O'Brien with this book and I can honestly say she just became one of my favourite authors!
Lynn
Jul 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I had to read this for a book club and did not think I was going to like it. I ended up enjoying it. The characterizations were great.


Madeline
This book has only 240 ratings on Goodreads, even though Colm Tóibín talks it up every chance he gets. That puts it even lower than Carpentaria, which is also under-read, I think (even though here is a Writers & Co interview and if you google "Alexis Wright" you get NYT hits, and my library has a copy so your library probably has a copy too, go read it, it's a struggle! and then read The Land of Spices - it's not!). Anyway, I was curious so I looked at the books I've read this year, and, tak ...more
Derek Emerson
Nov 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Peggy
The spiritual and temporal journeys of a Mother Superior and a young boarder are intertwined in this lovely and thoughtful novel set in an Irish convent in the early part of the 20th century. The Land of Spices was first published in 1942 but it felt fresh to me. The human heart and the challenges of society haven't really changed. And of course, God is still speaking (quietly).
Fred
Mar 25, 2014 rated it liked it
O'Brien folds this story with great care and precision--sort of a literary origami. Her prose is eloquent and satisfying. If you are drawn, however, to fast-paced stories with outrageous characters in constant motion hurtling themselves towards some spectacular end, this book will not be for you.
This book is more of a lazy afternoon spent drifting about in a small pond boat. Stylistically, this book is similar to those of the Bronte sisters and the polar opposite of any work by Elmore Leonard.

Th
...more
Matthew Fray
Mar 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
It is a wholly convincing evocation of a very specific time and place; an Irish convent school in the years before the first world war. And it follows two characters, the Mother Superior and the young student that she takes a liking too. Although as a "cold fish" the Mother Superior tries not to out and out show her favouritism as some of the other nuns do. It shows the petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices among the nuns and the students to good effect. As the Mother Superior is English sh ...more
Martha
Nov 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
The title _Land of Spices_is taken from a poem by George Herbert - one of the descriptions of what prayer is. Land of spices also conjures something forbidden - a place not got to by prayer, but by human desire. Both of these ideas - the monastic life of prayer and the human life of the world are looked at with a caring and loving eye. It's hard, now, to see how brave O'Brien was to take on these topics and how her treatment of them could end in her book being banned. But, of course, it was not ...more
Michelle Treviño
Nov 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Wall Street Journal told me to read this book, so I did. And it was good, as some other book once said. Yes, *that one sentence* rocked a nation and led to the banning of the book for many years, but that's a shame, for there's so much else going on here, and it's beautifully written. Bonus for ending the book in June of 1914; whenever I read historical fiction based in Europe, and I realize we're bumping up against the summer of 1914, I always think to myself, "Oh boy, here we go..." But we ...more
Peg Castle
Feb 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I do feel I missed out on certain passages because of my unfamiliarity with French. Some key letters between characters were written in French. Would like to see a version with those sections translated.

I plan on giving this a second read. There are a few passages in which characters address and express in their inner dialogue issues of loss of innocence, the nature of grieving and the role educators and authority figures have in the shaping of children's futures that struck me as quite profound
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500 Great Books B...: The Land of Spices - Kate O'Brien - Fionnuala 1 6 Aug 03, 2014 05:35PM  
  • The Echoing Grove
  • Devoted Ladies
  • One Fine Day
  • The World My Wilderness
  • Miss Mole
  • The Tortoise and the Hare
  • A View of the Harbour
  • The Sugar House
  • The Constant Nymph
  • The Last September
  • The New House
  • The Rector's Daughter
  • House of Splendid Isolation
  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
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Kathleen Mary Louise "Kate" O'Brien, was an Irish novelist and playwright.

After the success of her play, Distinguished Villa in 1926, she took to full-time writing and was awarded the 1931 James Tait Black Prize for her novel Without My Cloak. She is best known for her 1934 novel The Ante-Room, her 1941 novel The Land of Spices and the 1946 novel That Lady. Many of her books dealt with issues of
...more
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