The Herbalist - Niamh Boyce

Genre: Irish Culture/Historical Fiction
Synopsis: When the herbalist appears out of nowhere and sets out his stall in the market square he brings excitement to Emily's dull midlands town. The teenager is enchanted - the glamorous visitor can be a Clark Gable to her Jean Harlow, a Fred to her Ginger, a man to make her forget her lowly status in this place where respectability is everything. However, Emily has competition for the herbalist's attentions. The women of the town - the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters - all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. The Herbalist is a riveting story about the shadow side of Irish life - the snobbery, the fear of sex, the tragedy of women destroyed by social convention and the bravery of those who defied it.

Review: What a fabulous book! When I was initially seeking out titles for my Irish Counties Challenge, this one immediately jumped out at me, both because of the synopsis and the beautiful cover. I'm delighted its lived up to my hopes for it. Short chapters alternate in viewpoints between several characters - mainly Carmel, Sarah, Emily and occasionally Aggie. Each girl or woman comes from a different background or place in society, and the day to day life of each becomes inextricably interwoven with the others over the course of the novel, resulting in a complex, multi-faceted illustration of life for women in 1930s Ireland.

In 1930s Ireland, maintaining (or failing to maintain) respectability by adhering to social convention was something that could make or break a woman and throughout the novel all of these women deal with potentially damning issues behind closed doors - often behind the Herbalist's doors. These days, while the judgemental nature of Irish society is not so overt or all-encompassing, a lot about this book actually feels very familiar -  the attitude to women, pregnancy, unwanted children and reputation is largely unchanged, although it is being challenged by modern debates over the persisting illegality of abortion in Ireland.

It is also an accurate depiction of a small town in Ireland, in which everyone knows everyone else's business and almost delights in gossiping about scandals - the only release for a repressed nation, another familiar association I make with my own small hometown. I'm no expert on 1930s Ireland, but this book feels very authentic to me - except, in hindsight, having read other reviews - the lack of a Catholic church presence in the form of a local priest seems like an unusual omission.

It is a gently-paced, slow moving story which is with soft, lyrical prose - difficult to believe it's a debut novel. Each of the characters is believable and nuanced, with a distinct voice that makes it easy to differentiate between narrators as they alternate from chapter to chapter. Though the novel meanders somewhat, it grows quite dark, moving in a direction that I should probably have seen coming (though I did not). Much in the way all gossip is whispered in these small communities, the author never outright states the details of what is happening, instead making observations from the perspective of our narrators and leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. What ultimately comes of this is a horrifying tragedy which is all the more horrific for never being spoken of.

Maybe a little slow to start, but don't let that put you off. An easy, though unsettling, and gorgeously written gem. I eagerly await Niamh's next novel!

Rating: 5/5

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