Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices is a novel set entirely in a convent in Ireland, tracking the Reverend Mother’s thoughts, recollections, and actions alongside the experiences of the youngest pupil, Anna Murphy. Nationalist, class, and gender politics seep in and out of the narrative–as does religious thought–in part to show that if the convent secures certain kinds of distance from the world, this distance (safety?) is never complete, and can actually be quite dangerous.
The novel is devastatingly beautiful and closes with such feelings of nostalgia, even as both characters march onwards to fight the fights they’ve fought so hard to be able to fight. This nostalgia transforms the criticism of Ireland implicit and explicit throughout the book into a form of love. Looking at the Irish landscape, knowing she’s soon to leave it, the Reverend Mother–surprised–notes its beauty. Anna questions her surprise, having assumed–like the good Irish girl that she is–that the nun must have always found it beautiful. The Reverend Mother responds:
“I have sometimes thought it too easy–like Irish conversational charm. However, occasionally the light does something to this unaccountable landscape, and really makes it seem holy for a minute–an island for if not of saints” (298).
I love this line. I think it captures something about the beauty of difficulty–the very holiness of it. Not because difficulty, in itself, is valuable, but because it creates encounters (between light and landscape, here) that may be fleeting but are absolutely sublime all the same. Refusing to be satisfied with what is “too easy”–what is simply charm–creates the possibility of more.