Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Herbalist - Review

'He just appeared one morning and set up shop in the market square. It was drizzling. Everything was either a shade of brown or a shade of grey. He was the lightest thing there, the one they called the black doctor. He wore a pale suit, a straw hat and waved his arms like a conductor. The men spat about dark crafts and foreign notions but the women loved him. Oh, the rubs, potions, tinctures and lotions he had, unguents even. I went to the market the first chance I got, to see past the headscarves, but all I got was a glimpse of a bottle held high, and the gold-ringed fingers that gripped it. The women crowded around his stall. God, but they’d no sense at all, clucking like hens. ‘One at a time, ladies, one at a time.’’

Set in 1930’s Ireland, an Indian man, 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 captivated - the glamorous visitor could 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.

But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. She may be a dreamer, but she has a fierce sense of right and wrong. And with the herbalist's fate lying in her hands she must make the biggest decision of her young life.

THE HERBALIST is a riveting story that electrifies and dazzles with wonderful imagery, exposing the shadowy 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, but it is even more than that. Featuring a strong cast of characters, including a prostitute, and a woman desperate for a child, this novel is both dark and utterly enchanting. Somewhat like how the herbalist casts his spells on the villagers, Boyce does the same for the reader. You will be completely drawn in, and not only by the secret remedies of the exotic stranger, but by the magical realism within this captivating read.

I fool you not, this novel moved me greatly. The characters are of the stature that will stay with you long after you finish the final page. And just in case some of you out there haven’t yet heard of Niamh Boyce, I can tell you, she won the 2012 Hennessy New Writing Award, as well as being shortlisted for the 2011 Francis McManus Short Story competition, the 2010 Hennessy Literary Awards, the 2010 Molly Keane Award and the 2010 WOW Award.

Dermot Bolger has described the novel as ‘A richly layered and finely realised evocation of the closed world of a vanished Ireland, encompassing its innocent insularity and its hidden corners where sexuality and respectability collide. Niamh Boyce's compelling female characters push against the rigid social parameters of 1930s Ireland, yearning for the light of the outside world, which comes in the shape of a stranger trading in herbs, cures, complications and danger.’

To me there are three elements which stand out about The Herbalist, the power of the magical realism in this story, the strength of the characters, and the ultimate beauty of the prose. Boyce captures both warmth and darkness with a tale that is rich and thought provoking. The characters in Boyce’s novel are fascinating, real, and wholly engaging. And if you’re like me and happen to have a best book shelf, you’ll place The Herbalist on it.

P.S. I'll be interview Niamh as part of her blog tour on the 4th July, so watch this space!!!


  1. I loved it too Louise, found myself really caring for the characters, and terrified at some points... really very moving.
    Looking forward to the interview.

    1. Thanks Niamh B! Looking forward to our writerly weekend as well!! xx L


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