“The gentle thread of the little voice:” Silence, Sexuality, and Subjectivity in Kate O’Brien’sThe Land of Spices

in Silence in Modern Irish Literature
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Silence peculiarly determined Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices, as it was banned by the Irish state on the grounds of a fleeting and indirect reference to homosexuality. This censorship ironically mirrored the text’s concern with sexual repression, encrypted interiority and the links between the feminine and the unspoken. O’Brien’s novel centres on the largely unvoiced relationship between a reverend mother and her young charge. It is as much taken up with the underground nature of a queer femininity as with the former’s retreat to the convent because of her shocked discovery of her father’s sexuality. Silence acts as a metaphor for the policing and suppression of women and the carceral spaces, such as the cloister and the boarding school, in which they are moulded and contained. Yet it also serves as a medium for the expression of sexual emotions and affective states that would not otherwise be countenanced by an Irish patriarchal society or a morally prohibitive Catholic regime. Silence further etches aspects of female subjectivity which is shown to be predicated on withdrawal and self-discipline. Daringly, The Land of Spices suggests a correlation between an erotic investment in the father, queer femininity, and the marginalized roles of women within patriarchy.

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