This is the first novel by Niamh Boyce, which encapsulates the social history and rigid society of Ireland in the thirties . The main characters are all female and the story is funny and sad in turn. The novel captures the contrast between “townies” and a small farming community in rural Ireland. The “townies” with their notions of grandeur and superiority and the lives of rural folk barely making ends meet. Doctors, shopkeepers and teachers considered themselves a cut above everyone else and in particular members of the rural community.
The main characters in the novel are excitement-starved females. Into this society arrives the herbalist, a mysterious half Indian, who “sets out his stall” in the town market place, in direct competition with the local doctor. They patronize him for his “cures and potions” and because of his perceived glamour, he turns the heads of the local females, many of whom fall under his spell.
One of the central female characters in the book is Carmel, a shopkeeper, whose raison d’être is to get pregnant. She is in a loveless marriage with a younger man, who sees the marriage as an opportunity to live a life of comfort. When Carmel’s dreams do not come through she turns to the herbalist for help.
The story line and the easy style captivate the interest of the reader. It is a very well written book, which is difficult to put down because of the mysterious activities of the herbalist, which one wants to uncover. This book would appeal to the generation of people who lived around this particular time and to a younger generation alike. It should be compulsory reading for people who perceive themselves as “victims” of the current economic climate as it shows the survival of the spirit even in such impoverishment as the Irish experienced, in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
Niamh Boyce was a very deserving winner of the title of the 2012 Hennessey XO new Irish Writer of the Year and I look forward to her next novel.
Review by Ann Whelan
The Herbalist, by Niamh Boyce, Penguin Ireland (2013)
Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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