The Unlikely Occultist: A Biographical Novel of Alice A. Bailey

Written by Isobel Blackthorn
Review by Misty Urban

In this biographical novel, 21st-century Australian librarian Heather Brown inherits the manuscript collection of a scholar working on the occult and learns of Alice Bailey, a 20th-century spiritualist hailed as the mother of the New Age. As Heather makes her way through the collection, her skepticism turns to interest and then fascination with this bold, uncompromising woman who reminds Heather of the aunt she’s recently lost. Chapters on Heather’s reading progress, which sometimes summarize information, alternate with chapters that dramatize turning points in Bailey’s spiritual life, from her first contact with the guide who will dictate several of her books to her missionary work in India, her break with Theosophy to found her own school, and her inspiration for an organization to work for global peace. Adding interest to these scenes is the looming menace of Hitler, Alice’s worries about her health and her daughters, and a feud with a former student. In the end, Heather finds a surprising connection between Bailey and her own family that makes her wonder why Bailey isn’t better known, given that many of her works, including the school she founded, survive to the present day.

The vivid scenes from Bailey’s point of view save the book from otherwise becoming a very interesting encyclopedia entry, and Blackthorn gives a human face to a woman whose vision for global peace and prosperity predated the United Nations and made her, in her own time, as influential as Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky. While it leaves aside any discussion of her teachings to focus instead on Bailey’s life, Blackthorn’s book offers a fascinating portrait of a woman dismissed by mainstream thinkers and religions, a woman whose current obscurity is all the more poignant considering the grandeur of her ambitions and her hopes for a healed world.