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.
This is because the women in the book are always in danger – of public disgrace, of abuse, of sordid death, of being carted off to a laundry, never to be seen again. The threat of social ostracisation, at best, and incarceration, at worst, hangs over many of the female characters. Boyce brilliantly depicts an Ireland where sexuality and its consequences are both obsessed over and feared, a country determined to keep its population ignorant of the outside world, where customs officials seize novels considered perfectly innocent in the country next door, and then pass them on to their friends, who rent them out to their neighbours until the pages start to fall out.
It’s a country dominated by a closed-minded, hypocritical, prurient sanctimony epitomised by Carmel’s husband Dan: “He acted like everything that was anti-Catholic had in some way contributed to their misfortune, as if not reading would bring them children. He hated Irish writers, hated foreign writers, hated women writers. Nothing was highbrow enough for Dan; yet all he bought were local newspapers and skinny westerns.” This is no country for young women, or indeed anyone with a thirst for knowledge and freedom.
But although The Herbalist paints a damning portrait of 1930s Ireland, one with some unsettling similarities to the 21st-century version, it never really descends into caricature. Carmel, Sarah, Emily and even old Aggie are exquisitely drawn. Carmel may be judgmental and snobbish and sometimes cold, but she never loses the reader's sympathy. She's tormented by the idea that her dead baby is in limbo and so she will never see him again, and Boyce shows the terrible cruelty of a church teaching that was abolished too late for thousands of real-life Carmels.
Emily may be flighty, but she’s principled and brave. Aggie starts off as a typical bawdy old dame, but we see her bravery and kindness, and the tragedy that led to her current life. And even the frankly irritating Dan is capable of an act of breathtaking tenderness. Although characters may not always respond to their circumstances in a way every modern reader can relate to, they feel right for their time .
Only the herbalist himself remains opaque, with Boyce giving tiny hints of what his life may have involved before he arrived in the town. While this can be frustrating, it's ultimately more effective. The herbalist entrances the women of the town partly because he is an enigma. And just as the readers of The Herbalist share the women's fear as we read, we share their wonder and excitement as well. This is a hugely impressive and wonderfully assured debut novel. I can't wait to see what Boyce does next.