The Herbalist, by Niamh Boyce

Review published on July 2, 2013.Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

“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 as well as an impressive debut.


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