on 23 June 2013
"You wouldn't know it but it's my story. You won't find me in the column inches. You won't find me in the newsprint. You'll find me in the gaps, the commas, the full stops - the small dark spaces where one thing led to another."
Although the quote above relates specifically to one of the characters in this book, it is an accurate description for the whole book. This story is told with as much eloquence through everything that isn't spelled out as it is through the words on the pages.
This story tells the tale of a small town in Ireland during a hot summer late in the 1930's. It shows us the events that slowly, deceptively but steadily led towards heartbreak and destruction after two strangers arrive in town.
The first stranger was Don Vikram Fernandez, a dark-skinned travelling herbalist. Although he is looked at with suspicion by almost everyone in the town when he first arrives it isn't long before, especially the town's women, find that the potions and lotions he has on offer are something they can't live without.
The only person to immediately take to Don Vikram is young Emily. Seventeen years young and having just lost her mother, Emily is an adventurous and romantic spirit. Although most people in town look down on her, Emily refuses to let that get her down or destroy her dreams. Young and lonely as she is it doesn't take a lot of the herbalist's attention or many of his enticing fantasies to make the girl believe herself deeply in love with him and him with her. When her feelings come up against her sense of justice, Emily finds herself with an huge and important decision to take.
The second stranger is Sarah. Having been raised in the country-side by her midwife aunt after her mother died in childbirth, Sarah finds herself transported into the town after the school-master, her secret boyfriend's father, arranges a job for her there in his sister's shop. The night before she leaves her aunt's house, a big party is held in her honour; a party that will have far reaching consequences for Sarah and for the town she's about to move to.
Carmel owns the shop where Sarah is about to start working. Having just lost her much longed for son in a still-birth, Carmel is deeply unhappy and more than ready to retreat into her bedroom to nurse her depression and read her kinky and forbidden novels. Ignoring her much younger husband as well as her shop and home will have far-reaching consequences and not just for her.
Young Rose is the beautiful and privileged daughter of the local doctor. Always kept close by her mother, Rose seems to have the spoiled and perfect life other girls can only dream about. But all is not well in paradise and by the time the truth is discovered it will too late for this young woman.
Observing it all is Aggie. Woman of ill repute, fortune teller and spiritualist it is Aggie who sees and knows it all. Unable to interfere she is able to share her knowledge and pearls of wisdom with the reader and in the process comfort the dead.
"There is a time in everyone's life when you leave behind who you were born to be and become what life makes of you, or you of it."
This is a beautiful and fascinating book. It captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town in Ireland in the 1930's with an accuracy that is almost painful. In this town, where it is impossible to be invisible, where opinions are formed to remain in place indefinitely and where the moral high-ground is held by those who least deserve to reside there, it wouldn't take a lot to disturb the apparent peace and quiet.
What really impressed me is how the author managed to keep the upcoming drama below the surface for so long. While the reader is well aware that disaster is only around the corner - or a few turned pages away - the tone of the story is smooth and almost distant. Nothing is spelled out in detail. The reader has to read between the lines and draw the conclusions that aren't spelled out. While there is a constant under current of pending doom, the story is told in whispers; the same sort of whispers that would give voice to gossip in a town like this. As a result, the story is told through the words that aren't on the pages just as much as the words that are actually there. And some of those words are gorgeous:
"Sarah loved opening the shop, loved the way the light lit the silence first thing in the morning."
Maybe there was a bit too much foreshadowing at the end of the chapters as in, for example, "maybe she should've listened more carefully". I understand that this would have been done to up the tension but I don't think the book needed it. The tone of the story, and all the things that weren't said or explained made it perfectly clear that we were heading for some sort of climax; the extra hints weren't necessary in my opinion.
The characters in this book are fascinating, especially since you hear the story from several different perspectives. At first glance it would appear that their problems are very much a product of the time they're living in, but if you think again not a whole lot has changed. Women who have lost a much wanted baby are still expected to "snap out of it". Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are still viewed with suspicion and mistrusted. Unplanned pregnancies are still a thing to be frowned upon. This is a thought provoking story about women; their strengths and weaknesses in the face of everything life and the people around them may throw at them.
According to the publisher's information this story is based on real events in 1930s Ireland. I thought about researching what those real events might have been but decided that there really was no need. As much as this story is set in the past and as much as we may read this book and be horrified by the events described, it has to be said that not so much has changed since then. This is still a country where thousands of women feel the need to flee to England every year, where abortion remains illegal under all circumstances and many would refuse a woman that right even if would mean putting her life at risk. Eighty years later so little has changed that this story is far more contemporary than it should be. And that alone makes this a book well worth reading.
on 15 September 2013
One of the best books I've read in a long time and has reminded me why it is that I love reading so much. Set in a small Irish town in the 1930's this novel has all the ingredients for the perfect read. Boyce has created a world to get lost in, a world full of history, intigue and mystery with so many twists and turns it kept me guessing until the end. The tragedy and darkness that afflicts the main characters lives is balanced by the magic,captivating imagery and splashes of colour that feature throughout. The story, told in the voices of the five female characters, intricately weaves their lives together beautifully. Each woman suffering her own personal grievance, harbouring her own secret. Fascinating characters that made the pages come alive. A dark,emotive story unfolds to an equally warm page turner. I flew through this book and from the moment I started reading it, was hooked. Well worth the read. Look forward to seeing what's next from Boyce in the future.
on 19 June 2013
Anybody familiar with Niamh Boyce's work knows that the prose is highly visual, and evokes an almost magical quality in the landscape she sets her stories in. This is true of the The Herbalist. The exotic protagonist captures the imaginations of young women in the small town he rolls into, with his herbs, potions, tinctures - especially Emily's. Competing for his attention are the other local women. It's through their eyes that the reader glimpses what provincial Ireland was really like in the 1930's, and in particular, what it was like to be a woman. The Herbalist and his activities are not all as they appear, and the womens' involvement with him reflect the social constraints on their sex at the time. To further evoke the culture of this era, Niamh Boyce has woven in the music, the films and stars of the 30's. Clearly, the author has really researched the period and this shines through the prose and makes characters like Emily, Sarah, Aggie, Carmel really sing on the page! This is a novel to captivate, to provoke, and it questions our own perceptions of female sexuality, motherhood and womens' rights - historically and in the present. Dealing with serious, emotive issues in this skilful and passionate way, makes this novel very readable. I recommend it and am looking forward to more of Niamh's work to come.
on 18 August 2014
I stayed up half the night to read The Herbalist - simply couldn't put it down. An expertly crafted tale of village life behind the chit chat and smiles, it sneaks a peek into the private lives of women in Ireland in the 1930's. Excuses are found to by-pass restrictive social mores when a coloured man, The Herbalist, comes to town - firstly out of curiosity, followed by necessity for some. Through her compelling characters Niamh Boyce skilfully sets about showing the reader how life used to be for women under the class system of a bygone era. She highlights the devastating effects that lack of choice and pressures brought to bear by a community can have on both sexes but particularly women. She depicts how innocence can be exploited in the most cruel way and yet, throughout the book, there are humorous moments which help make her characters become truly alive in the reader's mind. At times this book is harrowing, at other times it's funny but at all times it is a gripping read. I've closed the cover on The Herbalist but the characters remain with me.
on 1 April 2014
Absolutely dreadful. I, like some of the other reviewers, was swayed by the glowing reviews on the cover but I only got about a quarter of the way through before I gave up. Some parts were so badly written I actually laughed out loud. The 1930s Ireland setting did not ring true in the slightest - a warning to anyone tempted to write about something they haven't experienced first-hand. There are so many good Irish writers out there - stick to those and avoid this. I'm baffled as to how this ever got published.
on 4 June 2015
I thoroughly enjoyed The Herbalist. It had been sitting on my Kindle for several months. I had read a few pages but wasn’t in the right mood or couldn’t get into it at first.
Then one day I began reading it again and soon became totally immersed in the setting and the story. I can clearly imagine how an exotic character like the Herbalist would have repelled and attracted the locals in a small town in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter, a mere few decades ago. That’s the part that seemed incongruous to me i.e. the fact that a man like him would have chosen to live in a midlands town in Ireland back in the 1930’s. When a book really interests me I want to find out as much as I can about the spark that ignited the idea for the story. I discovered that the author had found a small newspaper cutting while working on the archives of a local library (if my memory serves me correctly). The cutting reported on the trial of a man with an exotic sounding name who was accused of duping the locals with his treatments and herbal potions, or something to that effect.
Fiction is fiction and if you want to immerse yourself into a story and enjoy it without every detail having to be perfectly authentic, this might be the book for you. I know Irish life, I grew up there and I was able to roll with the story. Human nature being what it is, people gossip and people tend to go with the crowd. You’re either loved by many, tolerated or shunned. Boredom and lack of stimulation can make people behave strangely. Even in the sixties, Ireland was a country run by clerics; women were repressed and had little freedom, and this is all brought home in this dark but entertaining story. My favourite character was Aggie, although I don’t seriously think a character like her would have been tolerated in any small town in Ireland, and she certainly wouldn’t have been having parties on her houseboat. Forgive me if I’m wrong on that score. Never mind, we can suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. Yes, the author did use her unique style, switching characters and point of view and zooming in and out of scenes. But I genuinely loved her language, her creativity and her humour at times. I’ve marked a few examples here:
It reminded her of when the thread ended on the spool and the needle ran on regardless, puncturing seed holes of light.
I was growing myself some women’s intuition.
There was a lot wrong with her face: a wide mouth, a chin an inch too long, flared nostrils. And yet ... she was perfectly lovely.
Grettie would have had Mass said for a splinter in her finger.
I struggled into the fur – it was soft as sin.
Ned had a dusty old job sweeping the roads but was always neat as a pin.
Rose was lying on the ground for anyone to see, all lonely under the moon.
Was I to live like a shunned sow, like the Carver sisters in their flour-bag dresses…
…it was a low-class thing. Low-class things are so exciting. Low class, my arse…
Okay, that’s enough. You get the picture. I’m very glad I returned to this book. It was a marvellous read. Dark yes, but amusing too. I look forward to reading more from this author.
Niamh Boyce's debut novel is set in a small Irish village in the 1930s, where - with not a lot going on, and Dublin a substantial train ride away - the main object of the women appears to be to spy on each other and gossip. The gossip potential grows considerably when a strange foreign herbalist called Don Vikram Fernandes arrives in the village to set up business as a 'quack' pharmacist. Soon, all the married women are hurrying to his shop for 'cures for their nerves'. Local prostitute Aggie recognises a kindred spirit - someone who doesn't fit in to any society - and is both drawn to the herbalist and repelled by him. Carmel, a local shopkeeper, goes to the herbalist for remedies for her grief after her baby is still born, and for potions to make her husband desire her and give her another child. Sarah, sent to work in Carmel's shop, asks the herbalist for work writing labels for his potions and helping him do his books - she's desperate for money to help her through an unplanned (and so far secret) pregnancy). And Emily Madden, the wild town beauty, sees the herbalist as a chance to escape the tedium of daily village life, dreaming of escaping with him across the Irish sea and setting up as a double-act in Brighton. And for a while, it seems the herbalist may share her dreams, But in fact - as Emily soon discovers - Don Fernandes is not all he seems.
Boyce's novel is (after a slow first 50 pages or so) a gripping read, with good dialogue, and a set of distinctive female voices. She's interesting about the limited options women had in the 1930s, and about how the chauvinist society her heroines grew up in has affected them (in very different ways). She's also pretty good on plot - the second half of the story, as the herbalist becomes progressively more sinister, is a real page turner. And I found myself caring for the women in the story - particularly (in different ways) Sarah, Carmel and Aggie - Emily I found it harder to warm to until later on, but came to like too. The male characters, though not on the whole very nice, were also interesting, and I felt that Boyce portrayed Dan and Carmel's collapsing marriage very well. The herbalist's big secret I also found convincing - it put me in mind of the Claude Chabrol film about the woman trying to earn money for her family during World War II by going against Catholic beliefs, again with terrible results. As a weekend read, this was very enjoyable on the whole, and kept me occupied late into Sunday night.
However, I had a big 'But' about it, and that was that bearing in mind the setting (rural Ireland in the 1930s) I found large aspects of the plot completely unbelievable. Boyce's heroines live in Catholic Ireland - an Ireland that was, even more than now, firmly controlled by the Church. The priest (and probably some of the nuns from the local convent) would have been major players in village life, and influenced everything. But (apart from Carmel's husband Dan's right-wing views, Carmel's mention of the dogma of Limbo, Carmel's brother Finbar's discussion of 'banned' books, a few references to going to confession and the odd 'talk to your priest' from the police) we might as well have been living in a purely secular society. None of the women appeared to pray or go to church regularly. There didn't even seem to be a village priest - or if there was one, he kept well out of the way! No one thought about notifying the priest about the herbalist, no one seemed to go to confession, and there was none of the pressure so common in poor Irish families of the time for one or more children in a family to enter the Church. For Catholic girls, the younger women in the novel seemed remarkably relaxed about sex - whereas in reality Emily would have known that (according to certain Catholic beliefs) she was almost certainly damning herself by having sex with the herbalist, and Sarah would have been in a very complex dilemma about her sexual encounter. I agree with the reviewer who also noted that the town fortune-teller and prostitute was far too much part of society - in any normal rural community of the time she'd have been driven out, plied a secret trade under cover of running a cafe or bar, or been driven to one of the bigger towns. People would not have been so relaxed about her role in village life. It was also odd that none of the characters appeared to have any interest at all in life beyond the village (apart from films). No one seemed to go to Dublin much, no one talked about moving to England (which a lot of Irish villagers did, to find work), no one seemed to have any interest in politics (and this with the build-up to World War II happening in Europe) or be planning to move to the city. It was very claustrophobic. And I felt in the end that Boyce didn't help herself much by making the herbalist such a thinly-sketched character - we barely learnt anything about him, which meant his charisma was not so easy to understand. Plus, I wasn't sure that Emily would have done what she did (she'd have been basically run out of town for it) even if she did have heroic intentions.
Not entirely believable then (read Berlie Doherty's 'Requiem' for a better idea of what rural Irish life in the mid-20th century was like). But still worth four stars for the engaging characters and the gripping plot. I'll be interested to see what Boyce comes up with next.
on 19 November 2013
Niamh Boyce's debut novel, The Herbalist, is an easy-to-read work filled with lively characters. It grabbed me from the first page and kept me interested through the last.
The lives and stories of four women intertwine in 1930s Ireland when a mysterious foreign man arrives in town and makes them begin to question their beliefs, their society and who they are. Although the book is titled for this visitor, the narrative belongs firmly to the women. It is refreshing to read a novel about this time period filled with complex, strong and deeply flawed women. Boyce's plot does not get bogged down by the bigger questions, the all-present Church or the looming Magdalene Laundries, instead, she allows the women's voices to drive the narrative. The reader is quickly drawn into their world, which is uncomfortable and very real.
There are some interesting magical realism threads with imagery of birds, that could have been more fully developed. These begin to create an interesting tension that could have been drawn through the different narratives and added another layer to the narrative. A flushing out of these ideas might also have made one of the main characters more sympathetic. Sometimes the subplots seem sprawling, reaching to other towns and extended familial relationships. Just before they become unwieldy, however, Boyce reigns them in and brings the story back to its heart.
Overall, The Herbalist is an excellent debut with compelling characters and a perspective on Ireland that resists the stereotypes of Ballykissangel and other bucolic whitewashing efforts. I, for one, look forward to more from Boyce.
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.
Winner of the 2012 Hennesssy XO Award for New Irish Writing.
The Herbalist is set in 1930′s rural Ireland and focusses very much on the lives of Women in that place and time - as we follow several of them, including Emily, a picture emerges of just how different life was back then and it is compelling intriguing stuff..
Emily dreams of another life and thinks the Herbalist can provide it for her - however he is an enigmatic and possibly dangerous man and Emily is not the only woman who wants something from him...
Again I don't want to give too much away - but when Emily discovers things may not be as clear cut as she thought, her inate sense of justice prevails and things get very interesting...
I was completely and utterly immersed in that world during the reading of this wonderful, evocative and heart breaking novel...it does not surprise me in the slightest that Niamh Boyce won an award - the prose is beautiful to behold and puts you right into the hearts and minds of these women and the things they face. Women's Lib very much a thing of the future, you will end up feeling very strongly about the subjects you are reading of, and its all tied up in a strangely delicious story.
One of my favourite parts of the story, a side issue if you will, was the comment on banned books of the era. One of the ladies "rents" out said novels - Lady Chatterley's Lover amongst others, and the different reactions of people to said literature is intriguing and adds another depth to the tale.
All in all a wonderful reading experience. Not my usual thing perhaps but as I take on this reviewing lark with gusto, I am discovering some wonderful stories that perhaps might have passed me by. My grateful thanks to Penguin for sending me this one - I loved it.
Happy Reading Folks!
on 7 August 2013
As a fan of Niamh Boyce's writing, in particular her poetry (Hennessy Fiction winner 'Kitty' and a poem with the theme of Beauty and the Beast are stand-outs), I've eagerly looked forward to "The Herbalist" - a novel which was published after being selected at the Irish Writer Centre Novel Fair. And it didn't disappoint. The pages ran easily through my fingers and I was engaged throughout.
There were a couple of niggles such as the absence of the parish priest in ultra Catholic Ireland and also the changes of point of view which sometimes left me puzzled to know who was speaking but these did not detract from my enjoyment of "The Herbalist."
While the titular hero is male, women play the main roles and strong personalities dominate. The tightness and lyrical tone of the writing places this book well above the average commercial women's fiction genre, yet the story is accessible and the characters likeable and believeable.
1930's Ireland is atmospherically portrayed, with darker issues deftly woven into the story - incest, rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, infertility and sexual ambivalence and the attendant attitudes well drawn by the writer, attitudes that, as it happens, sadly eighty years on haven't changed so much!
A favourite line that cleverly evokes the thinking of the time on learning: "Mr Carty was famous for daydreaming, the side affect, they said, of too much education."
A very impressive debut.