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October 22, 2013 / ldejong4

The Herbalist

A review of the novel The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce, 2013.

I am a woman, in my twenties and living in Ireland. Well aren’t I lucky? I love being a woman. I suppose I never thought about whether to like and enjoy the gender granted to me but in recent years I have and I embrace that. I will never know what it’s like to be a man and vice versa but we women certainly try our best to make them understand. Don’t we?

To be honest, I’m tired of reading articles targeted at women in newspapers and popular business magazines about the remaining gender inequalities in western societies and how women are still not managing to climb to the top of corporations. Or even the reverse – articles highlighting how great we have become. I get it! There have been and still are significant gender differences when it comes to things like salary and opportunities to progress. Frankly, I don’t think many women even want those stressful jobs. I believe there will always be natural inequalities on both sides and for this reason I have lost interest in following such developments.

What is a lot more interesting, is to compare how many social issues affect women of a nation today to those of that same nation in the past and debut novelist, Niamh Boyce, has done just that for us. The Herbalist is a story that took me on a very bleak journey to an Irish town in the 1930s and it was there I realised the reality of what it is to be a woman in Ireland today. This novel is not a life-changing read however it delivers incredible power through an eventful, descriptive and emotional story. I was intrigued to read, upon opening, that it is a fictional story based on real life events.

A dark-skinned man known as the herbalist travels from afar to this small Irish town where he sets up shop at the popular local market. He is an alternative therapist targeting the local young girls and women with special remedies, medicines and potions to treat a variety of ailments. Word of his effective treatments spreads and soon the whole town is talking about this newcomer. He is portrayed as an attractive, modest and reserved individual and it is his mysterious character that attracts a lot of female attention thus leading to absorbing storyline and shocking conflict. The local gossip is the be-all and end-all for the individual families and it is fascinating to witness how the characters react and behave in particular situations as a result.

Throughout this novel, Boyce addresses a plethora of social issues in Ireland of that time including gender inequalities, religion, income, sex, abuse, unplanned pregnancies, the Magdalene laundries, miscarriage, abortion, puberty, death, depression, suicide and the most interesting for me – social reputation. Throughout the story, in every twist and turn I sense a dark cloud hanging over the characters like a voice nagging in their heads saying, “what would the neighbours say?” It is this fear of one’s reputation that carries the plot through.

Generally, there are very few endings to stories I praise and especially when I am enjoying it. In this case, I felt it to be a bit dragged out however it does draw to an interesting close in the last few pages. I particularly enjoyed Boyce’s approach to viewpoint being very similar and if not, better to Colum Mc Cann’s well-known Dancer. Each chapter is from the viewpoint of one of four main female characters and she has written the book in both first and second person depending on character. It was very well structured, flowed nicely and was extremely easy to jump between viewpoints thanks to the clearly labelled name headings of each chapter.

I recommend The Herbalist as it will certainly open your eyes to how different society was for women in the thirties and how lucky the women are of Ireland today. If I have sex with a stranger, no one will really care. If I am abused, I can report it without fearing the consequences of my reputation. If I get my period, I don’t have to use a rag and if I get pregnant, I would receive gifts from my friends rather than be kept hostage by my parents. Let’s hope the more disadvantaged societies in the world catch up soon rather than complain about what continues to lack in our own.

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