Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

3.5 Star

When the herbalist appears out of nowhere and sets out his stall in the market square he brings excitement to Emily's dull midlands town. The teenager is enchanted - the glamorous visitor can be a Clark Gable to her Jean Harlow, a Fred to her Ginger, a man to make her forget her lowly status in this place where respectability is everything.

However, Emily has competition for the herbalist's attentions. The women of the town - the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters - all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles.

But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. She may be a dreamer, but she has a fierce sense of right and wrong. And with the herbalist's fate lying in her hands she must make the biggest decision of her young life. To make him pay for his sins against the women of the town? Or let him escape to cast his spell on another town?

The Herbalist is a riveting story about the shadow side of Irish life - the snobbery, the fear of sex, the tragedy of women destroyed by social convention and the bravery of those who defied it. It is an unforgettable story from a rare new talent.

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Kathryn - 3.5 Star

I read The Herbalist and then was asked if I liked it?  I can’t honestly say I liked it, no.  It was well written and the plot lines were brought together and Boyce created a good build up, the main characters were defined and the story was logical and interesting.  But there wasn’t much in the novel I liked.  The lives of the people in The Herbalist were full of so much despair that I was in a constant state of anxiety reading it. I wanted to pluck them out of their miserable lives, dust them off and send them back to another reality. 

I was hoping that there would be more surrounding the herbalist’s job, his concoctions and remedies but instead he was dark and frightening and there wasn’t much about the creation of his wares at all.  Emily is inexplicably drawn to him though her voice seemed to have more underlying sense than to fall for a stranger.  All the women’s narratives were somewhat confusing to me but Emily’s was the most contradictory.  She seemed strong and forthright and yet couldn’t see sense when it came to this man.  I also was perplexed that no one seemed to notice her running around town in the middle of the night.  The time period suggests that this would not have been at all appropriate.  Her father being mentally absent was one thing but she appeared to have a decent relationship with her brother who ought to have had some candid conversation with her about her choices- even if just brotherly concern for her well-being?  I had a bit of a tough time keeping all the secondary characters straight but there were a few of them that I liked a lot and would have been interested in hearing more from them.

In a nutshell I didn’t really enjoy The Herbalist but, despite my misgivings, I did think it was an interesting novel.

Thank you to Penguin Ireland for our review copy. All opinions are our own.

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