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Book Review: The Premonitions Bureau - An Otherworldly Treat

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

By: Sam Knight

Publisher: Faber

Historical Setting: 20th Century

Reading Age: 14+

What if you could see the future? If you could foresee disasters before they had ever even occurred? Would you want to be able to see what was to come? And if you could, would anyone care what you had to say? Or would the world just think you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic? A stick short of a bundle? A top hat short of a Monopoly board? That’s the central premise of The Premonitions Bureau - the foreseeing of the future that is, the book has nothing to do with Monopoly - a breezy, fascinating, and completely compelling debut from writer Sam Knight.

The story begins with the Aberfan disaster of 1966, when a vast pile of slurry produced by the nearby mining operation slid down from the hill in a nightmarish avalanche, submerging Pantlas Junior School and several houses that stood in its path. Tragically 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives. Sam describes with moving poignancy how several people had haunting visions of this horrific event: “Weeks after the accident, the mother of an eight-year-old boy named Paul Davis, who died in Pantglas School, found a drawing of massed figures digging in the hillside under the words ‘the end’, which he had made the night before the slide.”

Heart achingly, 10-year-old Ery Mai Jones, had told her mother before the disaster: “Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’ Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time. Tell me again later.’ The child replied, ‘No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down over it!’ The next morning, Eryl Mai was buried in the school.”

It’s a rending read, though thankfully Sam details the tragic events with compassion and care. Those same events prove the catalyst for a psychiatrist named John Barker to establish the Premonitions Bureau. Printed in The Evening Standard, the bureau provided an opportunity to compile hundreds of prospective visions, contributed by readers from across the UK. Whilst most proposed premonitions were a bust, there did prove to be two people with an uncanny ability to predict the future, Lorna Middleton and Alan Hencher. The true underlying narrative thrust of the book comes about when Middleton and Hencher predict the demise of John Barker, the founder of the Premonitions Bureau, himself.

What follows is an astonishing but all-too-brief account of the rise and fall of the Premonitions Bureau. This is a slight read, and, without enough attention, can be all too quickly consumed like a delicious confectionary treat. Sam Knight takes delight in confounding the readers’ expectations, bringing in unexpected diversions from the main narrative history to explore events as varied as Munchausen’s sufferers, soviet cosmonauts, and the Bluebird speed records. Not all the diversions are successful, sometimes I found myself wishing that Sam would return to the point, but this is still a fascinating and unusual book. Despite how outlandish the events get, it’s to Sam’s credit that he writes about the weird world of premonitions in an open-minded and even-handed manner.

To wrap up then, The Premonitions Bureau is an eye-opening tale well worth your time, indeed, you may well never look at our perceived sense of reality in quite the same way upon its conclusion.

Thank you to Faber for providing us with a copy of The Premonitions Bureau for this review.

If you’d like to buy The Premonitions Bureau, then please click here to visit Faber & Faber's website.


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