Book Review : The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

June 18, 2014 Book review 1 ★★★

The Herbalist was an interesting, atmospheric read but it was a lot darker than I was expecting. From the lovely vintage feel cover, I was expecting a light hearted, warm read but that is not what this book is.

Book Review : The Herbalist by Niamh BoyceThe Herbalist by Niamh Boyce
Published by Penguin Ireland on 2013-05-02
Genres: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Social Issues, Womens Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
Source: Received from Publisher

A beautiful and gripping story from 1930s rural Ireland, a time when women paid a terrible price for unmarried pregnancy, The Herbalist will appeal to fans of The Midwife's Daughter and The Outcast.

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

First Line of The Herbalist:

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My Thoughts on The Herbalist:

I have mixed feelings on this one. I loved the 1930’s provincial Irish village setting; I feel it captured the feel of small town Ireland reasonably well. However I felt it was all a bit too mean. The characters aren’t nice, I couldn’t identify with any of them fully.

I just found that they all had a very unpleasant side to them. I’m all for well rounded characters and think character flaws make characters more realistic but in this case there were so many back-stabbing and vicious moves that I kept detaching from the characters. I also think all the characters seemed isolated and lonely without anyone to confide in or turn to. I can understand this happening but on such a wide scale as happens in this book, it just struck an off note with me.

I had hoped that some of the main characters would strike up a friendship and this would have lent a lighter tone to the book. However this is obviously not what this book is aiming at. It is a dark and gritty read that made me shudder for how horrible people can be.

The writing is very evocative and I was immersed from head to toe in 1930s Ireland whilst reading it. I felt so strongly about some of the characters that they obviously felt very real to me and they defiantly got under my skin. At times I felt sad and hurt for what the characters went through and the secretive, furtive goings-on within the village hit me hard. It made me angry, it made me sad, it made me feel so many emotions that at times I had to put it down and take a break.

The themes of pregnancy – some unwanted, some yearned for and never achieved – and how this was dealt with in 1930s Ireland was well handled and again arose strong feelings in me. The story is told through the voices of 5 female characters but all are very, very different so I never felt confused but it did feel a bit jarring at time to switch point of view so frequently.

The review is starting to sound very negative and my overall impression of the book isn’t a negative one. I think it’s just different from what I expected but I’m still glad that I gave it go.

One other thing is worth noting is that there is no romance in this book. I appreciated that, it makes for a refreshing change. The book is dealing with serious womens issues and adding a frivolous romance would have taken from the plot. I still think stronger female friendships would have enhanced it but that’s just a personal opinion.


Rating Report
Did I feel it?
Overall: three-stars


Who should read The Herbalist?

I’d recommend this to those that enjoy historical fiction, strong sense of place, dark issues and vivid characters. And don’t judge the book by the cover; it’s a lot grittier than it looks! If you enjoyed The Midwife’s Confession by Diane Chamberlain , then you may also like this one.

Thanks to Penguin Ireland for giving me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.


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