Since the comments have finally dried up on the last ‘What are you reading now’ post, I figured it might be time for a new one. I recently finished reading Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices which I picked up while on holidays in Galway, vaguely aware of the title but unsure really of what to expect. Lately, I’ve been getting much more interested in a lot of the Irish literature I passed over in my younger ways in favour of trendier stuff. Considering that it’s set in a convent and features a Reverend Mother as one of the main characters, The Land of Spices is surprisingly engrossing. The book follows the lives of the nuns and pupils of a convent school for wealthy girls in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914.
It combines elements of the classic boarding school novel – think Enid Blyton with politer pupils and occasional darker subtexts – with some acute social commentary on well-to-do Irish society. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Anna who as the school’s youngest pupil, begins her scholastic career at the age of six and lives out her whole childhood with the nuns. However, the most interesting character is the Reverend Mother. English but brought up in Belgium by unconventional, academic parents who fled Cambridge in disgrace, she chose to become a nun against her father’s will and for mysterious reasons. Kate O’Brien portrays her as more moral than religious, and an outsider in provincial Irish society. It is through her more cosmopolitan eyes that we see the narrow-mindedness of a nationalist clergy who distrust the school for teaching its pupils foreign languages. The book was banned in Ireland at the time of its publication in 1940 for a mere sentence that was considered ‘obscene’. I can’t help thinking however, that it must have been as much Kate O’Brien’s searing commentary on the provincial Irish mindset, and her refusal to buy wholesale into the Irish nationalist myth, that made her a marginal figure in Irish culture.
After I finished The Land of Spices, I picked up The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet. It doesn’t on the face of it seem to have anything in common with Kate O’Brien’s novel, but both actually deal with the different cultures coming into contact with each other and the challenges of finding understanding and common ground. In Mitchell’s case, the differences between the cultures were a little more extreme though, as late seventeenth-century Dutch traders struggled to understand the culture and language of the insular, closed kingdom of Japan. Although the storyline was a little odd and uneven in places, Mitchell did manage to convincingly portray the encounter between the European mindset and the rigid delineations of Japanese society. Ambitious and well-written, even though it probably did not deserve to be on the Booker shortlist, and doesn’t quite reach the heights of Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten.
I bought Nella Last’s Peace last week, after discovering this excellent austerity themed reading list. Best known for the diaries she kept during the war years, Nella Last was a housewife in the north of England, in her fifties when the war ended. The second volume of her diaries describes the drab monotony of life in the early years of peacetime; an inevitable disappointment as shortages, rationing, hardship and penny-pinching continued after the long years of war. Nella herself, like millions of other women, had gone to work as part of the war effort, and quickly found frustration setting in as she struggled to adapt to being a housewife again. A sense of foreboding also pervades her writings as horror of the atomic bomb and the threat of another war is always at the back of her mind. Her diaries give us a glimpse of how ordinary people everywhere struggled with such concerns – from the frustrations of not being able to replace her curtains for lack of coupons even in peacetime and the constant food shortages to the gradual realisation that just being a ‘housewife’ is not enough for her any longer – every day. So far, I’m finding Nella’s insightful account of the day to day challenges and worries of these years a fascinating read. A further volume of her diaries from the 1950s is due to be published in October, and I’m really looking forward to reading that too.
These are some of the books I’ve been reading lately. Please comment below and share your literary thoughts and recommendations!