The Hypnotist has quite a striking cover. Anyone sitting opposite you on the train will be faced with a menacing hooded figure with two black holes for eyes staring unforgivingly out at them. Considering the political climate in which we live, reading a book with the hood of a KKK member on the front can make one rather self-conscious:
‘It’s not a biography,’ you want to say, ‘I am not reading of the accomplishments of the KKK.’
Lawrence Anholt’s book seems to have arrived just as the horrors we had thought defunct have begun remerging, after all, shortly after the election of Donald Trump the KKK announced they would be holding a victory parade in North Carolina. This unashamedly bold move hints at how strong and confident such groups feel at the moment. So, in this respect, though Anholt’s novel is set in 1960’s southern USA it reflects a contentious contemporary environment which is increasingly worrying. The past can shine a light on our present and hopefully the exploration of the past in journalism and literature can help us not to repeat our indiscretions again. Anholt is adamant that we be aware that discrimination and its injustices can occur ‘anywhere, anytime’, and this novel goes a good way to articulating that sentiment.
The story follows three characters: the African-American orphan, Pip; the house-hold help, Native American, Hannah; and the Irish Hypnotist and immigrant, Jack. Between them we have three different forms of narration: a third person account of Pip’s experiences; a first person reflection from Jack; and a series of invented poems/songs from the speechless Hannah. Together they piece together their experiences on a farm in the south of the USA. Pip is bought to the farm from an orphanage, he is selected because he can read, and therefore, as well as being a house help, he can read to the lady of the house. Jack has come from Ireland from a family of stage hypnotists, he lives nearby and watches over the farm; and Hannah is the maid of the house, she is sullen and doesn’t speak and has a mysterious background. The story weaves through these three characters exposing pain and fear in all of them. Pip, Jack and Hannah face the prejudice of their local community, at night the KKK meet nearby and take out their fanaticism on local African-American’s, and Pip is no exception. Jack faces the prejudice of being an immigrant and an outsider. His empathy for the children means he strikes up a fatherly relationship with them and delivers a kind of therapy through his hypnotism. Together the three open up to one another, exploring their pasts and working towards finding a way to make a future in an environment that doesn’t offer them much.
There is quite a lot to take in in this novel: the magical qualities of Jack’s power, the torrid reason for Hannah’s silence and the sorry predicament Pip finds himself in whilst living under the shadow of the KKK. The book also lays out the political and social context of the time, plotting in significant moments of the civil rights struggle and other events. This gives the plot its background as the three characters come under threat from bigotry and violence before climbing to a steady crescendo and an almost gothic ending. Overall, the novel can be described a touching exploration of the outsider and articulates this well through these three distinct voices.
It is a vivid and enjoyable story that manages to create a stinging critique of the dark side of human nature. Anholt tries to fit a lot into this book, for one, the orphan pip is inspired by Dickens’ Pip from Great Expectations – a book which the young boy carries in his pocket. Elements from the original text flow through the book: from his parentless childhood; to him meeting the modern Miss Havisham, lying obese in her bed surrounded by a feast of decaying fast food; to the tempestuous Hannah who lives in the house and with whom Pip promptly falls in love with. Though modern versions of classics can be fun, they can also be flawed: a regurgitation of such a text can simply match the original with none of the originality. So in this respect, I am glad that Anholt does not mirror Great Expectations too rigorously; there is room in the novel for a new story to emerge.
I worried at points that the novel might struggle to keep all these elements together, but closing the book I found that despite the many elements crammed into it, it did provide the reader with a flowing and enjoyable read, as well as a strong moral objective to demonstrate that hate in all forms should be rejected. Anholt has provided both an entertaining read and an impassioned plea for fairness. He takes time to explain this at the end of the book in his ‘Author’s Note’, which I think adds to the text rather than demystifies it. He stands up for all those that face prejudice and quotes Martin Luther King – who is also has notable presence in the novel as well via his effect on Jack and Hannah. A strong moral tone in a book can be risky for the author for fear of appearing patronising, but in The Hypnotist it is not forcefully expressed, instead it is a vivid plot that makes the novel a strong effort, and if the reader comes to the end of it emphasizing with the excluded and the disadvantaged that can only be a good thing – especially in times like these.
Born in 1959 to a Dutch family with Persian roots, Laurence Anholt spent his early years in Holland. He trained as a painter at Falmouth School of Art where he met his wife, the artist, Catherine Anholt. Laurence went on to take a Master’s Degree in Fine Art at the Royal Academy in London.
The Anholts have produced more than 200 children’s books, which have been translated into 30 languages. Their titles have won numerous awards including the Nestlé Smarties Gold Award on two occasions. Many of their books are written by Laurence and illustrated by Catherine, but Laurence has written for several other artists including Arthur Robins and Tony Ross, and in addition, he self-illustrates his Anholt’s Artists series, an introduction to great art for young children.
Penguin Random House will publish Laurence’s first full-length novels, The Hypnotist and Love Letters.
The Anholts have three grown up children; Claire (30) works for the United Nations in New York, and twins, Tom and Maddy (27) are a Berlin based artist and an actor in London.
Catherine and Laurence live in an ‘upside down’ eco-house, surrounded by wildflower meadows overlooking the sea in Devon.
Laurence’s passions are family, art, travel, books, Buddhism and bees.
The Hypnotist will be published by Penguin Random House on 27th April 2017.
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Review by Jessica Gregory
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