New Fiction Review: ‘The Herbalist’ by Niamh Boyce

11 Jul


Rating: ★★★☆☆

I won my copy of ‘The Herbalist’ through a Goodreads First Reads competition and was immediately struck by how much the cover looked like that of ‘Call the Midwife’. I don’t believe this choice was accidental. The texts share a common thread; both novels are historical fictions that pertain to women’s bodies, and both have a heavy religious presence.

‘The Herbalist’ is the story of a small group of women in 1930s Ireland. It details how the seemingly trivial appearance of a charming foreigner, who enters their market square one day to pedal his miraculous wares, changes their lives forever. It’s a novel about social convention, secrecy and seduction. Each woman is faces with her own choice to make and burden to bear, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Overall, this was a treat of a debut, and I feel that Boyce will only improve with any subsequent novels she may write. I was given an early review copy so I am unsure how much of the plot has changed with the book’s actual release, but the text felt a bit unpolished. All of the components for a great story are here but I feel as if certain parts have been chopped out and not entirely erased; the dregs are still there. For instance, I don’t know if it’s just me hopelessly wishing for a lesbian subplot in an historical fiction, but I feel like there were two brief mentions of Carmel’s Sapphic nature: the first, when Emily sees her through the shop window and Carmel is transfixed by Sarah’s smooth lovely skin, or something, and later at the drunken dinner party, when one of her lifelong friends calls her an ‘invert’ and both ladies are speechless and horror-stricken. I feel like these parts might point to a larger story that was hastily removed — especially in the context of Carmel’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband.

I am also unsure about Boyce’s choice of narrative technique. Two of the central women are treated to first person narratives, and two are in the third. It’s a brave experiment, but one that’s a little bit hard to follow – especially in the first few chapters. It would perhaps have worked better if each girl had a distinct narrative voice, like the local prostitute Aggie, who gets a handful of her own chapters towards the end of the book. Saying that, though, young Emily is a great presence in the novel and definitely the strongest character. Kind of like a teenage Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

My particular favourite part of the story was the mention of a kind of banned books black market that Carmel helps to orchestrate. I would have liked to see this explored a bit more, or at least experienced some of the characters reactions to ‘Moll Flanders’!

You can read the first chapter of ‘The Herbalist’ on Amazon.

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