The Herbalist, by Niamh Boyce
The most entertaining yet substantial historical novel since Joseph O’Connor’s ‘Star of the Sea’
On a sunny spring day in the 1930s, a mysterious dark stranger arrives in a small Irish town and sets up a stall in the market square. Soon the herbalist and his tonics and potions are the talk of the town, especially among the local women and girls. There’s Emily, a lively teenager with a part-time job in a grocery. She sees the herbalist as the route to a life of glamour and excitement, far away from her shellshocked war-veteran father and depressive mother. There’s shopkeeper Carmel Holohan, who is expecting her first, long-awaited, child. There’s Sarah, an attractive young woman from a nearby village. And there’s Aggie, a raddled old woman of easy virtue who lives on a barge near the herbalist’s cottage.
While the herbalist himself is based on a real figure, the women are totally fictional creations. But Niamh Boyce brings them to vivid life in this moving, engrossing novel. Emily isn’t the only person who sees the herbalist and his arcane skills as the solution to all her problems. Sarah is struggling with a secret and hopes that working for the herbalist will give her enough money to start a new life. And Carmel, unable to come to terms with a shattering stillbirth that Boyce describes with heartbreaking understatement, turns to tonic wine as well as the herbalist’s concoctions in an attempt to conceive another child and dampen her own grief and fear.
And as for Emily; after the death of her mother she starts spending too much time with the enigmatic stranger, and starts to realise exactly what services he performs for the town’s desperate women.
If this all sounds terribly grim, well, it’s not. Which surprised me. Irish historical fiction tends towards the grim. Centuries of colonial and theocratic repression have inspired many great works of literature, but they are often short on laughs. Boyce’s subject matter may be dark, and she treats it with the seriousness it deserves, but she writes with a lightness of touch not often seen in the genre; this is the most entertaining yet substantial historical novel I’ve read since Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea. You may not expect a book about fear and repression to be not only enjoyable but funny; The Herbalist often is.
This is partly due to the voice of Emily, which shines out of the pages. Emily is like a more precocious, less protected version of Delia Scully, the heroine of Maura Laverty’s wonderful 1940s novels Never No More and No More Than Human. She’s funny and bumptious and obsessed with Hollywood stars, but when she loses her job in the shop and her mother dies, Boyce shows how terrifyingly easy it would be for her to tumble out of respectability and into the shadowy world inhabited by old Aggie and her ilk. Even when The Herbalist is at its most lively, the undercurrent of danger is always there.