Lessons Learned in Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices
Kate O’Brien’s Land of Spices is a good read especially if the bookworm is from a catholic school upbringing. The story’s contents complete with the antics of the girls and the lack of patience in the sisters is recognizable from memories drawn on similar events. The nuns’ softer emotions were hidden away from the students and only their hard-heartedness evident in the school’s classrooms. In sixth grade during the fall of 1963 after President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, a Dominican sister was seen at school with tears in her eyes. At this moment the realization descended upon the enrolled that there was flesh and blood under that habit and not an alien being. O’Brien addresses Catholicism, homosexuality and love in her novel with creativity and realism for the times. On a negative note, the liberal use of the French language is a reminder that this book was written with the rich and cultured person in mind and becomes aggravating to this unenlightened one.
In reading the excerpt from The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien contained in “The Penguin Book of Irish Literature”, this reader is at once aware of the descriptive words with which Helen (the eventual Reverend Mother of the novel) depicts her father, Henry Archer. She presents him in the passage as a man who is “very beautiful…different from other men…with curly, silky hair and eyes that shone like stars” and goes on further to say that “his face grew more beautiful as one drew nearer to it”. 1 Perhaps, this feminine portrayal is a less than subtle hint into Henry Archer’s being for in revealing him as a man with a feminine countenance and inevitably finding him locked in a loving embrace with Etienne Marot is not as shocking as it could be if he were positioned before the reader with well defined masculine qualities.
Other passages also provide hints into the psyche of Henry Archer. He is a man who surrounds himself with acquaintances of the same sex – young male students and confidants at the neighborhood bistro. Henry’s daughter, Helen, and cook, Marie-Jeanne, are his only female friends. Not counted in that total is his wife Catherine who died when Helen was eleven after a short illness. Henry’s easy and relieved attitude toward Catherine’s death troubles Helen terribly. As Catherine draws her last breath, Henry standing nearby says simply, “good-bye, dear Catherine” and “that was all”. 2 After Helen realizes Henry’s sexual persuasion, she knows why he seems so relieved at the death; it helps to dissolve him of his daily guilt in not loving her in the physical way that a heterosexual man would love a woman. In death, Catherine can remain his ‘cover’ just as she was in life because he will always remain a man who was once married, a fact that eliminates any questions concerning an unmarried lifestyle.
Long ago in Cambridge, a course of events occurred that resulted in the little...