THE HYPNOTIST by Laurence Anholt
One of the best YA books of 2015 was My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter, a historical novel set in nineteenth century America.
This highly impressive first novel by Laurence Anholt – known until now primarily for the picture books he produces both independently and with his wife Catherine (who contributes the chapter-head illustrations to this book) – is also a historical novel set in America. But some 100 years later – in the summer of 1963 to be precise. This too will most certainly be one of the best children’s / YA novels of its year.
I suppose I ought to declare that I have always admired Laurence. Some years ago I spent a happy day in his and Catherine’s company soon after they had opened a bookshop in Lyme Regis. He is someone I always speak with at bookish gatherings. But people who know me will be aware that close association or even friendship do not guarantee a gushing review.
Nor would I simply have ignored the book if it was no good. I have long advocated that bad children’s books deserve just the sort of treatment that bad films receive.
What a fine film this book would make – leaving, as it does, such a vivid visual imprint in the mind long after the final page has been turned.
The hypnotist of the title is a 32-year-old Irish academic called Jack who is working at a small university in the south of America. His role there is Head of Neurological Research, with a specialism in hypnotherapy. At key points in the story Jack’s ability to hypnotise subjects proves crucial.
The novel is cleverly constructed, with Jack’s sections told in the first person so that we see the main participants – the black orphan Pip; the farmer Zachery who obtains the boy from an orphanage expressly to read to and nurse his very overweight wife; Lilybelle the very same bedridden wife; Hannah, a mute native American Indian girl who is a general help around the household; and lastly Erwin, the monster-sized brutish son of Zachery and Lilybelle, an early veteran of the Vietnam war, and a leading member of the local Ku Klux Klan – we see all these both from Jack’s perspective (watching them as he does from the yard outside his bungalow) and also from the perspective of the omniscient narrator, the other sections of the book being written in the third person.
This structure works supremely well. There are two additional elements. Interspersed throughout the novel, and with increasing regularity, come the inter-chapter words to songs which the silent Hannah sings/composes in her head. In this way her character finds voice. “I have no voice/like a dry river-bed/silence is my choice/but I sing in my head”. These songs have been cleverly written to be believably the creations of a young teenager. There is also the voice from another time, as Pip reads passages aloud to Lilybelle from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
All the characters are well-realised, but the two physically large ones especially so: Lilybellle’s soft sensuality and her appreciation of beauty through the artwork she creates contrasting with Erwin’s hard racist hatred (focused on Pip) and his licentious designs on Hannah, with whom Pip has fallen in love on first sight.
Every reader will be swept into this highly visual world and the drama that develops within it. For young adult readers the book also depicts a time and period which, though many decades in the past, still reverberates in news stories emanating from America today.
It will be extremely interesting to see what Anholt the novelist turns to next.