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The Herbalist
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on 29 August 2017
Excellent read
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on 15 July 2013
I really enjoyed The Herbalist - easy to read but kept me interested so much so that I looked forward to getting back to it at night. Well worth a read.
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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.
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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.
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on 16 July 2013
It was a bit of a slow starter that ended up picking up pace towards the last quarter.
From a pure plot point of view this a good story. There were a few points I would query though.
Ireland in the 30s would have without a doubt had a Catholic priest running the show in the villages. Nothing happened without the sidekick of God finding out and he would have certainly been aware of the village females parading in and out of the house/hut of a dark skinned medicine man.
That is just a small irrelevant point though.
What kept this book from being really good was the lack of indication of character.
There are multiple main female characters and the reader hears their part of the story as it evolves. One after the other in short bursts and often silmultaneously.
Unfortunately the author wrote it in a way that the reader has to guess initially which one is telling the story each time.
I can only assume this was done in an attempt to either give the book an essence of a more literary fictional piece or the author didn't want to spoil the flow with the interjection of names to indicate a change in character.
Regardless of the reason I felt it was to the detriment of the story because it made it seem disjointed and it interrupted the flow.
Confusion instead of realisation.
Shame really because the concept is good. It describes a dark part of history for women and one that is rearing its nasty little head again, especially in Ireland.
I received a free copy of this book via NetGalley.
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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.
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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.
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on 19 June 2013
An excellent, thought provoking novel, depicting life in 1930's Ireland but still covering topics that are alive and well today. I loved it. It scared me, moved me and touched me. This is a book I will definitely read again.
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on 18 June 2013
I bought this book last week, and ended up almost asleep in work, because I couldn't put it down at night.
The story is fascinating, and I couldn't wait to see what happened.
The characters jump straight off the page, and into the mind of the reader. In my case, I've found that they're still very much there.
It's really easy to read, because the pace of the story keeps you turning the page. The book is set in small town Ireland in the nineteen thirties. I think this is the right era for the story, but I also think the characters in this book could stand alone in almost any era.
I'd offer to lend out my copy, but I know it's one of those books I'll read again.

The book had fantastic reviews, and was chosen for an Irish national book club in the first week of publication. I can see why.
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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.
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