The Herbalist is set in a small unnamed town in Ireland in the 1930s and tells the story of four women whose lives are affected by the arrival of a stranger – a travelling herbalist who appears from nowhere one day and begins selling his lotions and tonics in the marketplace. Nobody knows anything about the herbalist or his history and initially they are suspicious, but slowly he starts to cast a spell over the women of the town, including sixteen-year-old Emily. Lonely and vulnerable after losing her mother, Emily convinces herself that she and the herbalist are in love, but when she makes a shocking discovery she finds herself with a difficult decision to make.
Another of our main characters is Carmel, who runs a small shop in the town. Having suffered a recent tragedy, Carmel is depressed and insecure and she feels that the only person who understands is the herbalist. Her brother, a teacher, suggests she should find an assistant to help her in the shop and recommends a former student, Sarah, for the job – but how will Carmel react to Sarah’s arrival?
We also follow Sarah, who is having problems of her own. The night before she leaves home to start her new job, her beloved aunt Mai throws a party for her and something that happens at that party will have a big impact on Sarah’s future. Finally, there’s Aggie, a ‘woman of ill repute’ and a fortune-teller. Aggie is an outsider, but through watching and listening to what is going on around her she seems to know more about the herbalist than anyone else in the town. The stories of Emily, Carmel and Sarah are told in alternating chapters, with occasional contributions from Aggie, and gradually the truth about the herbalist is revealed.
I was very impressed with this book and found it hard to believe that it’s Niamh Boyce’s first novel! The writing is beautiful, the setting and the characters feel completely believable and the story itself is fascinating – inspired by true events, according to the author’s note at the front of the book.
Something I found particularly intriguing was the fact that two of the women’s stories are told in the third person (Carmel’s and Sarah’s) and two in the first person (Emily’s and – in question and answer format – Aggie’s). The only problem with this was that while Emily and Aggie both have distinctive narrative voices of their own, the other two feel very similar. One way in which the use of multiple viewpoints works very well in this novel, though, is that it allows us an opportunity to see things from the perspectives of women from different social backgrounds whose lives are confined by the class system of their small, narrow-minded community.
The herbalist himself remains a mysterious, shadowy figure and although he is at the centre of everything that is happening throughout the novel, the focus is always on the female characters and the various ordeals they are going through. I should mention that this is not a happy story and really delves deeply into the darker side of life in 1930s Ireland. I would like to be able to tell you more about some of the issues the book raises, but then I would be giving away the herbalist’s secrets!
I loved The Herbalist and hope there will be more books from Niamh Boyce in the future.
I received a copy of this book from Penguin Ireland for review.