Monday 25 September 2017

The truth about abortion in 1930s Ireland

Eilis O'Hanlon on the debut novel by the winner of this year's Hennessy New Irish Writing Award

Desperate measures: The Herbalist reminds us what a dreadful place Ireland was for women in our recent past.
Desperate measures: The Herbalist reminds us what a dreadful place Ireland was for women in our recent past.
Hennessy New Irish Writer 2011 Niamh Boyce at the Hennessey Literary Awards held in the French Ambassadors Residence. Photo Kieran Harnett

Eilis O’Hanlon

When she wrote this novel, Niamh Boyce couldn't have known that, by the time it was published, abortion would be such a pressing political issue once more in Ireland. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the Government's subsequent resolve to legislate for the Supreme Court decision on the X Case changed all that.

When she wrote this novel, Niamh Boyce couldn't have known that, by the time it was published, abortion would be such a pressing political issue once more in Ireland. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and the Government's subsequent resolve to legislate for the Supreme Court decision on the X Case changed all that.

Now those who support the availability of abortion under certain circumstances are even being threatened with excommunication by an institution whose own hierarchy has been found shockingly wanting when it comes to the protection of children from abuse and with regard to its treatment of so-called "fallen women" sent to its 'care' in the Magdalene laundries, both of which subjects are touched on in these pages.

In a way, maybe that illustrates the point this book is trying to make – that female sexuality and how to control it has always been a problem in Irish society.

Anyone tempted to think that little has changed for women in the past decades, however, should read The Herbalist for a reminder of just what a dreadful and dangerous place this country was for women for so much of its recent history, and the desperate measures to which they were reduced in moments of personal crisis.

For all that, it would be unfair to characterise Boyce's debut novel as a polemical book. Instead, it is the story – inspired by real events – of a number of women in a nameless Midlands town in the 1930s and the effect that the arrival of a travelling Indian quack doctor – with his lotions and potions to cure all ills and his ability to mesmerise women – has on the lives of some of them.

What is really being done to these women, one character demands to know near the end of the book.

The herbalist says: "Nothing they don't ask for. 'Jesus help me.' That's what they all say, every one of them. And does he? No. But I do. I save the day."

In fact, although it's not clear for much of the story, he is providing abortions to the desperate women who need them, as well as offering his lotions and potions.

For 16-year-old Emily, trapped in a miserable home life with a weary, defeated mother and a father who "couldn't bear for anyone to breathe the same air as he did, let alone speak", the arrival of the herbalist promises romance.

Carmel just wants his recipes for a book. She's inherited the local shop, where she lives in an increasingly loveless marriage with husband Dan, losing herself in banned books brought from Dublin to escape the disappointment of a marriage where they spend most evenings "tormenting each other".

Then there's Sarah, the hard-to-fathom country girl who comes to work in the shop, and Aggie, who is, in Emily's words, "the town you-know-what", a veritable Voldemort of sexuality whose services are so shameful they must not be named.

Over the course of one long, hot summer, all their lives and those of many other women drawn into the herbalist's web of exotic charlatanry change.

The town itself is well realised, its social panorama brought deftly to life. The 1930s period detail is expertly interwoven into the narrative.

Boyce, winner of last year's Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year award, also deserves credit for avoiding many of the pitfalls that can befall fiction of this kind. The Herbalist could easily have become another exercise in misery lit, with tragedy piled on tragedy until it loses its effect.

There are times when it threatens to tip over the edge and wallow in its own melodrama as Carmel's husband says she wallows in her misery, but ultimately it recovers its balance.

A book that could, just as easily, have turned into an anti-male rant, especially when the men in these pages are largely marginal and pathetic creatures, also has enough subtlety to avoid that dead end. The women here are equally capable of hurting and destroying one another, and not all the men turn out to be wasters.

Whether that's enough to sustain the novel is harder to say. Boyce's narrative builds to a thematically satisfying, even exciting, conclusion, and it's good to see that the female characters are given a central role in kicking back against their oppression; Emily's innate sense of right and wrong, in particular, shines out against the suffocating hypocrisy of the times.

But it takes a long time to get there, and when it finally does, the ending feels rather rushed. There's a trial which is done and dusted in a few short pages. Considering the pages devoted earlier to the delicate analysis of each character's every thought and emotion, that skews the balance of the book and feels unconvincing.

The touches of magic realism also give the impression of having been clumsily grafted on for strained effect. Nonetheless, Boyce has a distinctive voice, and it's easy to see why this book comes garnished with praise from fellow authors.

Abortion is never an easy subject to tackle, but if The Herbalist shows anything, it is that silence and secrecy never served Ireland well, now or then.

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