The Hypnotist is children’s picture book writer and artist Laurence Alholt’s first novel for young adults. You can’t tell. Rather than his first, it has the assured style of someone who has been writing for this age range for years. The Hypnotist is powerful book with a theme that couldn’t be any more relevant to today’s readers. It’s set in 1960s America, although the first chapter, where we meet Pip in St Joseph Poor Boys’ Orphanage, makes the setting feel much earlier. Pip is a 13-year old black boy, cruelly orphaned when his parents are killed in a traffic accident. We don’t get to know much about the orphanage – Anholt whisks him out of there pretty quick and into the service of Zackary, a grizzled,cumudgeonly type who lives on Dead River Farm with his morbidly obese and bed ridden wife, Lillybelle, and their only son, Erwin. Erwin, we soon learn, is not a nice guy. Erwin is best avoided at all costs, especially if you happen to be black. Pip soon learns to be on guard at all times, night and day, in case he bumps into this cruel young man and his mysterious associates.
Also on the farm is Hannah, a 13 or 14 year old (she isn’t sure of her age) girl of Native American descent and another of Zackary’s servants. Hannah might have been a potential ally for the lonely Pip but she is surly and silent and difficult to get to know. It is only as the story unfolds we learn of her secret inner life and hopes and dreams.
Added to the mix is Irishman Jack Morrow, the hypnotist of the title. He is a lecturer at a college in the town and rents a place within spitting distance of Dead River Farm. Apart from Lilybelle, Jack is the only man to show any kindness to Pip, recognising in him the same loneliness and sense of being an outsider he has often experienced. As the story progresses Jack, Pip and Hannah form an alliance that leads to deep friendship and love, with each one of them screwing up their courage to help the other when the time is needed.
I enjoyed The Hypnotist very much. Anholt deals with difficult issues of racism and white supremacism in a credible way. The racism is open and brazen, as was the case in the southern states in 1960s. There is a scene where Lilybelle sends Pip to fetch her some burgers from the take away and he finds himself barred from entering: ‘No dogs, Negroes or Mexicans’ the notice declares.’ On his return, empty-handed, Lilybelle is amused. ‘Aw, honey,’ crooned Lilybelle, stroking his cheek. ‘Didn’t ah tell ya? You have to wawk round th’ back. There’s a li’l shed there for Coloureds.’
As I mentioned in the introduction, The Hypnotist feels as if it is set in a bygone era of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example. But the research is spot on, the period absolutely accurate – experiences like Pip’s were not uncommon in the 1960s. Worse still, The Hypnotist could also be said to be a contemporary work. With Donald Trump the president-elect of America, and white supremacists celebrating that victory with Nazi salutes only THIS WEEK, America feels as if it’s going backwards. ‘I will build a wall to keep out the Mexicans’ was the Trump quote for which most gasped but many applauded. That’s why fiction is so important and stories like The Hypnotist more important still. We need writers to offer readers hope and to shine a bright light along troubled paths with their stories. Pip and Hannah walk troubled paths but the light is always there, shining, shining, and good triumphs in the end.
The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt
Published by Corgi
Age range: 11+
Themes: friendship, racism, overcoming all odds
Would suit: Y7/8/9 classroom readers for discussion