Penguin Ireland have recently published The Herbalist, a debut novel from Niamh Boyce —and it’s brilliant! It’s been a while since I was excited about a new Irish writer so Niamh’s voice is a breath of fresh air.
I won’t lie, it was the gorgeous cover that drew me in initially. Five pages later though I knew I had started a good read. Niamh was named the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year, and reading her debut leaves you in no doubt as to why.
It starts off gently enough, setting the scene during market day in small town 1930s Ireland. We meet a lively little character in Emily Madden and catch a glimpse of Aggie Reilly, “the town you-know-what” and “woman of ill repute”. The real star of the scene though is the enigmatic dark-skinned stranger selling herbal lotions and potions. As you can imagine, he caused quite a stir.
Emily gets a job helping out at Carmel and Dan Holohan’s grocer. Here she’s privy to all the local gossip and becomes even more fascinated by the mysterious dark stranger. Death, guilt, gossip, and fear are a heady mix. It’s not long before Emily is chucked out on her bum and the more poised Sarah steps into the shop girl role. And less time again before Sarah captures the attention of the herbalist.
A town full of preening woman, a smooth-talking stranger who promises health and happiness in glass jars, and a shed-load of dark secrets behind respectable doors, make for an engaging read.
Great characters, a solid plot, and an unexpected dark edge…congratulations on an excellent debut Niamh!