Always like to give Irish writers a boost. This is a great debut.
Up until relatively recently, Ireland was a pretty awful place for women. (This list of ten things an Irish woman could not do in 1970 will make you cringe.) However, the attitude by the 1970s was positively light years ahead of that in the 1930s. It is here, in the grim and gloomy era where a Eucharistic Congress was the biggest high the Irish people could hope for, that Niamh Boyce’s excellent debut, The Herbalist, begins.
In a small midlands town, a foreigner with dark skin (while he is often referred to as Indian, we never know his exact nationality) arrives and sets up stall in the market as a herbalist. The women of the town are soon flocking to him for cures and solace. But is the herbalist as benign as he seems?
The story was inspired by Boyce’s work as an archivist at the Leinster Leader. Just 19, she came across a snippet from 1942 which tersely reported on a “coloured man who was arrested for offences against young girls.” Newspapers at the time were extremely coy about sexual matters, and Niamh Boyce never forgot the clip, and used it for inspiration for her debut novel.
It’s no spoiler to say that, among his other talents, the herbalist is an abortionist, and a keeper of many of the town’s secrets.
With remarkable assurance, Boyce brings us into a world that many of us have given little enough thought to (I admit that once the thrills and spills of the Civil War were over, my eyes tended to glaze over in any Irish history class). However, despite the greyness of the era that’s conjured here, the novel is anything but dreary. We meet four very different local women, who all have highly varied motives for associating with the herbalist.
There’s Carmel, who is rapidly approaching the end of her fertility and is desperate to have a baby before it’s too late; Sarah, who has just moved to the town from the country; Aggie, an outcast and ‘loose woman’ who also reads palms; and Emily, a local girl who comes from a poor family. Emily is a wonderful first-person narrator, witty and descriptive. She’s a irreverent dreamer who is hopelessly naive and romantic; a risky combination today, but catastrophic in 1930s Ireland.
Hollywood-obsessed Emily develops a powerful crush on the herbalist, and endangers her reputation by following him around. As I mentioned in an earlier post, reputation and family name are still hugely important in rural Ireland, but at the time of The Herbalist, a woman could find herself incarcerated for acting out of the social norm. Indeed Aggie once found herself in a Mother and Baby Home. She tells Emily she got out by giving a nun a right hook, but her baby was adopted and she never saw him again.
From an early stage in the book, we can see the dark path that the four women are on, and Boyce skilfully and realistically weaves a sense of tension and foreboding throughout. She evokes our sympathy for each character, even the weak and prudish Dan, Carmel’s husband. The scene where he buries their stillborn child is heartbreaking.
The only flaw I found with the book was the absence of a priest as a strong figure within the community. Priests are still quite influential in Irish life, though obviously not as much as they once were, and the priest is largely absent here.
And the final denouement, where shocking secrets are revealed and the real bad guys essentially get away with it, should infuriate any Irish citizen.
The Herbalist is an examination of what a society which prescribes impossible rules does to its citizens. And the answer is brutalisation. Both men and women are brutalised by a society where normal human desires are seen as wrong and dirty. Horrible wrongs, such as abuse and rape go unpunished, and women left in impossible situations are forced to risk their lives at the hands of dangerously unqualified practitioners.
It’s sad to say that some of the dilemmas faced by many characters in The Herbalist are still relevant to Ireland today. A great, thought-provoking read.