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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 March 2013
A truly beautiful novel set in an Irish convent school just before World War I, and focussing principally on the senior character - Mother Superior- and the youngest, 6 year old Anna Murphy, sent there to avoid her parents' unhappy marriage.
Gradually the nun's history and reason for taking vows is explained; and as the years go by she overcomes her early loneliness for her home in Belgium. Meanwhile Anna too is shaped by extraneous events...
Gives a great sense of a largely happy community, but Kate O'Brien can relate sad events too, so movingly, and yet with hope. I was particularly struck by Reverend Mother's words of comfort to a bereaved member of the convent:

'It is natural for us all to imagine that the moment of death is frightening and lonely, if we are aware of it, which few are, perhaps. But so may be - if we could exercise our imaginations more extensively - the moment of birth. We know nothing, remember nothing, of the conditions of sensibility of the newly born, except that the immortal soul is present. But whatever the ordeal of entrance into life, it was brief and most of us are glad to have been born. So, too, with the moment of death. Whatever it holds, it is brief - and you and I know that, for those who have tried to be good, it is a gateway to perfect happiness.'
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on 26 October 2010
This book found its way to me through a book club. It examines the relationship between women of means who live in a nunnery which provides an education for the daughters of wealthy Irish (and other) families through the relationship between a senior nun and a pupil at the convent over a period of about 15 years. Some characters are nuns and some are their charges, and although its a woman-focussed story there are good strong male characters too. These nuns are not of the Magdalene sisters/Angela's Ashes world of brutal cruelty. Rather they are human and for the most part warm and are trying their human best for their charges. We do, however, see how the enclosed and narrow life brings pettiness to the fore sometimes, and where that leads doesn't feel very Christian. There is a brilliant set piece scene near the end where the place and value of educating women is played out - just wonderful in its way and worth reading for this scene alone, fabulously constructed and so vivdly depicted.

The two key figures are very well observed, and the story really readable (this is not just a pot boiler, the writing is much above this and deserves recognition), and I recommend this book as a classic Good Read, with lots of meat, some humour, some messages which make you think a bit, a satisfying unfolding and resolution of the plot - definitely one for a quiet weekend away or over the Christmas break.

My only caveat is that the writer is a well educated woman who thinks nothing of scattering prose in other languages through the novel, and the three letters written in French which are at intervals through the book are pretty necessary for the understanding of the plot. A smatter of German helps too, but these are only odd phrases and not so impactful as the letters
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on 28 June 2013
When I started reading this, as the result of a recommendation, I thought it would not be to my liking at all. A story based on nuns in an Irish convent with no suggestion of impropriety, sinister happenings or adventure - what was the appeal?
Instead I found I couldn't put the book down. The characters are beautifully and gently drawn and you want to know what happens in the various relationships, the impact of the outside world on the nunnery and school and the personal histories of the individuals.
I gave it 4 stars because the beginning is slow, so you need to persevere. The letters in French are helpfully translated at the back for you.
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on 17 July 2016
A beautiful book full of silence and yet so much to be said. The devotion to a human being and the devotion to God. The development of characters, their suffering, doubting and uprightness. To read this book is indeed as a journey to a far away land - "A land of Spices" - the title of the book captures so much of the book so well. It is a read to cherish.
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on 17 February 2018
An utterly beautiful novel about a child growing up in an Irish convent in the early twentieth century. Kate O'Brien isn't nearly well enough known. This is spell-binding from start to finish.
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on 17 September 2013
Not really what I had anticipitated, but still a pleasant read, and I will read more Kate O'Brien novels in the future.
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on 11 November 2003
This book surprised me and delighted me. I came to it expecting difficulty and boredom as it was a novel to be read for an english literature degree. I could not have been more pleased. Everything about it suggested that it would be dry, stiff and dull. On the contrary, it was beautifully observed, and genuinely interesting.
It delved inside the private lives of a high ranking nun and her young charge in surprising sympathetic manner. The novel particulary interested me as I am a past pupil of the school in which the novel is based. It's amazing how the novel communivates the teaching of the school, even today.
But this does not colour my opinion of its merit. Those who are completely independent of county Limerick enjoy its insights into the machinations of an Irish convent and its foreign leader.
This writer is a sad absentee from the canon of Irish literature. In many critical studies she has been compared to a female Joyce especially in this novel, and the opus of her works, The Last of Summer.
5 stars
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on 17 September 2000
This story, about the relationship between a Reverend Mother and one of her charges at an Irish convent school, is a sensitive look at the life of the two cental characters and the struggles and hardships they endure. The parallel between the life of Anna and her Reverend Mother and their endurance against the different forms of adversity they each face is drawn beautifully and the characters are fully fleshed out and three dimensional.
This is a novel for those who enjoy a story that traces events in peoples' lives and a story that details how each and every one of us can have a profound effect on others. Both Anna and the Reverend Mother are healed by their relationship with each other and are helped to come to terms with difficult and tragic episodes in their lives.
One of the major messages for the reader is the effect we have on the lives of those around us and what we can do to ease others' pain and help them on their journey through life.
Truly inspirational!
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