Best known for his books for younger children, The Hypnotist is Laurence Anholt’s debut novel for YA readers – not that you could guess. This is an assured and indeed ambitious piece of writing.
Thirteen-year-old Pip is plucked out of an orphanage by the wonderfully characterised Zachary, a farmer, to help with his tender-hearted but bedbound wife Lilybelle. Pip’s expectations might be looking up but for the fact that this is the Deep South of the 1960s and Pip is black and the inhabitants of Dead River Farm are white.
Well-meaning but nevertheless entrenched in the endemic segregation of the time, Zachary and Lilybelle are harmless enough but their son, the unstable and menacing Erwin, is a different matter entirely. A constant note of discord in the household, Erwin (irreparably damaged by his experiences in Vietnam) looms large over the lives of all. Add to this melting pot Hannah, a mute Native American girl also employed on the farm and a newly arrived university professor skilled in hypnotism, and a powerful story of prejudice and danger emerges. The striking cover design will give the eagle eyed among you a clear indication which way this story is heading but I shan’t give too much away…
Clever narration is shared between Pip and the first person narrative of the eponymous hypnotist Jack Morrow, allowing the reader to see racial tensions from both the point of view of the oppressed and via the shock and horror of an outsider. Both voices are interwoven by the lyrical and enigmatic voice of Hannah, adding a dreamy otherworldly quality to the book. It all combines into a compelling and powerful look at a turbulent period of American history that will have readers weeping in frustration at the potential for injustice in the world. The inclusion of an afterword from Anholt and an endorsement from Amnesty International also makes this read a particularly timely warning from history.