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16 December 2013

Review: 'The Herbalist' by Niamh Boyce (2013)

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.

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. To make him pay for his sins against the women of the town? Or let him escape to cast his spell on another town?

I've been lucky enough to have received several review copies of some thoroughly enjoyable novels written by Irish authors the past couple of months. Niamh Boyce's 'The Herbalist' was one of them, and with a first glance at the cover my interest had already been sparked. I love the girl in the red dress and the fabulous font of the title. I read somewhere that Niamh Boyce was named '2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year' and people had been anticipating her debut novel for quite some time. In other words, enough reason to start reading!

'The Herbalist' is set in a small town in 1930's rural Ireland, a town in which nothing out of the ordinary usually happens. Until a mysterious man named Don Vikram Fernandez comes to the village and sets up his market stall in the town square. With his special potions and creams, he quickly manages to spark the interest of all the women in the village. Most particularly, seventeen-year-old Emily who immediately falls for him. However, it doesn't take long before she realises the herbalist has managed to caught the attention from almost every single woman in town, and he might not be as friendly and fascinating as Emily thinks he is...

The different chapters of the novel focus on various female perspectives, which is something I really enjoyed. Next to teenager Emily who falls for the mysterious herbalist, there's Sarah, who is also a stranger in town and takes over Emily's job in one of the shops in the town owned by Carmel, another one of the female voices in the book. Next to that, there's also the beautiful rich doctor's daughter Rose, and strange townswoman Aggie, who sees and knows everything. Overall, I thought there was a great group of different female characters and I was intrigued by all of them, wanting to know what they were thinking and what would happen to them. I don't want to give too much away about the storyline, but life in a small town and the fact that you never know what goes on behind closed doors are fascinating themes that play a central role.

I personally thought the story started quite slowly, which is why it took me a bit of time to really get into it. However, it did give me the time to distinguish between the different narratives, and when I was taken in, I couldn't get out until the end. Niamh Boyce really managed to capture the mood perfectly, and the feeling of this novel haunted me for several days after having finished it. This is one of those books that somehow stays with you and unravels new details every single time you read it. 'The Herbalist' is an evocative and hauntingly well-written story, and a definite great read for any lovers of historical women's fiction.


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