Life’s been busy and the world distracting, but enough of that depressing topic. I also went to Bermuda in the intervening time. If you follow me on social media, you might have seen pictures. If you don’t follow, why not? There’s easy buttons to click below, or you can take a gander at my Instagram feed in the sidebar ⇒
Anyway…while in Hamilton I went to a bookstore because of course I did. It’s what writers do on vacay. There I found a quirky little book that completely piqued my interest: The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight. (Though the NYT review is much more of a summary than a review, kind of like a 4th grade book report. 🤨)
Lately, I’ve been drawn to non-fiction more so than fiction, perhaps because I don’t compare myself to NF authors as much. I love esoteric, occult-y topics, so I eagerly dove in, and I finished the book in just a few days.
There’s plenty to love here. Knight clearly knows his topic well, and his writing is concise, sometimes to the point of being dry. I had no idea that England (and later America) actually had a Premonitions Bureau or that there were people who genuinely appear to have predicted events in a manner going far beyond just a vague feeling.. That just seemed the fodder of horror movies.
And Knight lays out the case for some people being somehow sensitive to the patterns preceding a confluence of events that result in tragedy without resorting to exaggeration. Furthermore, the case at the heart of the book– the Aberfan coal mine disaster–is compelling reading.
At first I was confused by how Knight began, since he discusses Lorna Middleton, one of the sensitives, and not John Barker, the man who championed the Premonitions Bureau. Eventually, I understood why he chose to begin there, though I still don’t agree with it, nor the unconnected facts he brought up about her, or at least he never really ties some of the details to the central plot.
Though the story is captivating, the writing is less so. There were many moments where I felt like I was reading one of my senior’s research papers, primarily because I encountered some of the same errors students make. Now, I know the book had an editor because it is published by Faber and Faber, which is no fly by night press. Yet that only makes the issues more confounding.
First, as mentioned above, there are pages of details and facts that just sit within the narrative. They serve no purpose other than to pad out the word count. Lorna Middleton’s background–pages and pages of it–have no bearing on her ability to predict events (or Knight draws no connections for the reader), especially since the focus then shifts to John Barker. These interminable passages were frustrating when they simply were dropped in and then the author just meanders on.
Secondly, there are paragraphing issues. There are page-long paragraphs that could (and should) have logically been broken into smaller chunks. No reader likes to be confronted with gigantic paragraphs, and though sometimes I have to slog through them for scholarly research, this book is not meant to be that. It’s meant to be a non-fiction read for the masses. How did these get through editing?
Lastly, and most frustrating of all, is the lack of transitions. So many places would benefit from transition words that would have moved me as a reader from one idea to the next. The lack of these makes sections of the book choppy and uncomfortable to read. Having no transitions also results in subsequent sentences all starting with the same word.
I can’t tell you how many times I would comment on research papers that a student needs to break down large paragraphs and add transitions. What I don’t understand is how an editor (and proofer) didn’t suggest the same?
Would I recommend this book? Sort of. If the topic interests you, then it’s worth the effort, but if you’re looking for an easy beach read, it’s not the best choice. You can purchase a copy here.