Reviewer and critic Philip A. Wallis
At first glance of a synopsis of ‘The Unlikely Occultist’, an unsuspecting reader might think they were in for a bit of a dull read. They would be wrong.
Although almost forgotten today, and only occasionally mentioned as a prime mover for some of the more outrageous conspiracy theories, Alice Bailey was a major historical figure of her time and her influence is still felt today in some quarters. If it is true, that ‘history is written by the victors’, then Alice’s descent into notoriety and subsequent obscurity can be easily understood. A somewhat rigid and at times difficult woman, she none the less wound up being thought of as the mother of the ‘New Age’ movement of the 20’s and 30’s, and as a result, made both influential friends and powerful enemies. That her enemies won would seem surprising, but there is much that is surprising about Alice Bailey.
Isobel Blackthorn’s meticulously researched novel does much to fill the gap and more importantly introduces us to the ‘zeitgeist’ of the times between the two world wars.
Starting with the bookish Heather, an archivist in the manuscript section of the State library of Victoria in Melbourne Australia, a routine examination and inventory of a Dead Professor’s papers leads back into the past and the world of the Theosophists and Alice Bailey. Still trying to deal with the death of her favourite aunt, Heather plunges herself into what starts to become an historical and literary mystery.
As the story progresses, Alice and Heather seem to become in some way almost interchangeable, and the reader has to constantly be on guard for time shifts. This gives, even the present day narrative, an almost reminiscent, dreamlike quality, and the occasional references to Osho, throughout the work help to remind the reader, that this is not purely an historical topic, but one with resonances even to the present day.
The novel, although I hesitate to call it that – to this reviewer, its form is more along the lines of Truman Capotes ‘documentary fiction’, although not as grim or quite so dark – has an essentially classical structure of three parts, subdivided into shorter chapters. This makes the reading of it, a bit like going through old photo’s of strangers and wondering who they were and what their lives were like? In terms of Alice Bailey herself, it’s nice to see her shade dusted off and her life being re-assessed.
The author strikes just the right balance in the writing; although it is clear she finds much to admire in her subject, there is also a much more troubling aspect to some of what is being portrayed, that also needs to be acknowledged. The result being that she comes out at the end as a concerned but largely dispassionate observer and recorder of events, leaving it very much up to the reader to decide how they react.
For this reader, ‘‘The Unlikely Occultist’ is something you don’t find much of anymore, a ‘leisurely read’. You don’t feel you are being whipped from plot point to plot point, and you are allowed the time to just wander through the past a little, admire the scenery and meet some of people who live there, and then come back to the now, with perhaps a new perspective on where we are, and perhaps why we’re here.
To anyone familiar with the 1960’s, the term ‘New Age’ seems to be synonymous with that heady time. But in fact its provenance goes much further back, and in these days where Bhagwan Rajneesh of the famous ‘orange people’ can re-invent himself as Osho, and every second Facebook post is from Rumi, or some other such spiritual luminary, to have the means to re-visit a time when spirituality was not such a trivial matter, or could be so easily commercialised and reproduced, can be a very refreshing journey to take…
Alice Bailey as an Internet meme’… I’d like to see that?
Carmel Bendon – author, scholar
In her introductory note to The Unlikely Occultist, author Isobel Blackthorn describes the work as “a dramatization of Alice Bailey’s life and influence … a portrait based on deep and prolonged study of her life and works.” Blackthorn’s description is, at once, accurate and inadequate. It is accurate insofar as the biographical details of the life and work of Alice A. Bailey are all there; but it is inadequate in that Blackthorn does considerably more with her narrative than simply sketch a portrait of the prolific writer, teacher, and founder (with her second husband Foster Bailey) of an influential movement in the theosophical tradition. Blackthorn does not just fill in the gaps in the historical record but, rather, rounds out the story, giving it a thoroughly human aspect that invites serious consideration (and reconsideration) of this remarkable, and often contentious, woman. And, she goes further, setting the investigation and elaboration of Bailey’s life in present day Australia, thereby managing to co-opt the reader into the investigative and discovery process.
Alice Ann Latrobe Bateman Bailey was born in England in 1880. If the name ‘Latrobe’ sounds familiar to Australian readers, it is because Alice’s grandfather’s cousin was Charles La Trobe, the first governor of Victoria who, amongst many accomplishments, was the instigator of the idea of the State Library of Victoria. Blackthorn makes clever use of the ‘family connection’ by focusing the present-day action of the story on Heather Brown, a librarian at that very library. Heather, mourning the sudden death of her beloved aunt, Hilary, is assigned the task of sorting through boxes of material on Alice Bailey, acquired by the library following the death of Professor Samantha Foyle whose research interest had been centred on esotericism in general and theosophist, Alice Bailey, and her influence on the New Age movement in particular. Reluctant at first, Heather soon becomes intrigued by what she discovers in those boxes, and her investigation yields not only new insights into Bailey but also leads her to reassess her own life.
Alice A. Bailey was the subject of Blackthorn’s doctoral thesis and so it is no surprise that the presentation of Alice’s life – her struggles; her movement away from a strict Christian upbringing and narrow way of thinking; her disastrous first marriage; the birth of three daughters; her entrance into and embrace of Theosophy; her mystical encounters with, and inspiration from ‘The Tibetan’; her teaching and travels; her efforts to reform and redirect Theosophy on a new path; and so much more – is extremely detailed. To bring such detail to a ‘fictional’ work and, at the same time, retain readers’ attention, requires the skills of a very good writer and Blackthorn is certainly this. Nevertheless, the book’s detail in turn calls for attentive and thoughtful readers as the names and ideas, and associations of those names and ideas, take them down some complex routes at times. Leadbeater, Krishnamurti, Carl Jung, the Roosevelts, Rudolph Steiner, Eileen and Peter Caddy and the Findhorn community, U Thant, are a few names among many that are encountered on the way and invite further investigation beyond the limits of the book itself for those who are interested. Blackthorn’s inclusion of an excellent bibliography is a gift for those who want to delve more deeply. It is obvious that Blackthorn admires her subject but this does not prevent her from exploring some of the controversies that beset Alice (and Theosophy) during her lifetime and afterwards, thereby bringing a critical balance to the work.
The novel’s denouement pivots on an intriguing and unexpected synchronicity (which protagonist Heather prefers to see as ‘fate’) that brings the narrative full circle and provides a very satisfying end to a very full and satisfying read.
Jeyran Main, reviewer
The unlikely Occultist is a biographical story about Alice Baily. The author uses historical references and record in order to write a fictional tale about Alice’s life. A few characters are invented and fabricated in order to produce a beautiful narrative, however; she stays true to Alice’s personality and character teachings.
The story is written in two parts and I believe had a very nice flow to it. I had never heard of Alice before, so to me, she was just as fictional as the other characters, however, after reading the book I realized that the author had filled all the gaps of what once was uncertain about Alice.
The literature was stunningly written. Alice’s story and life were not easy. Raising three children alone after separating from her husband was truly delicately transcribed. What did exist was a blend of realness and fiction, which at times, made it inseparable.
The female lead and character were portrayed as strong and inspirational. Alice was a woman ahead of her time and era. I found the book very enjoyable to read. I recommend this book to historical fiction readers.
Amazon reviewer Gerry Stanek
If you haven’t read Alice Bailey’s unfinished autobiography, you can skip it and read this book instead. If you have read the autobiography and want to know more, this book helps finish Alice’s story, and highlights the many ways in which Alice’s work, both on her own and as the amanuensis for The Tibetan, continues to influence spirituality, psychology, astrology, healing modalities, consciousness studies, and many other aspects of modern thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.