Review of The Diviners
I have no self-discipline when it comes to Libba Bray books. I promised myself that I would not crack open The Diviners until I had completed memorizing my script for work… and I finished the book last night. Oops.
But reading a Libba Bray book is never a mistake, and this one, especially. The Diviners, which is the first installment of, I believe, a four-part series, is incredible. Set in New York City in 1926, the height of Prohibition, the backdrop is already intriguing. Add to it seventeen year-old Ohio-born transplant Evie O’Neill and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Evie is sent to live with her occult-museum curator uncle Will after she causes a disturbance in her small Ohio town by announcing at a party that the community’s golden boy got a chambermaid pregnant. It doesn’t matter that it’s true; everyone wants “that horrible O’Neill girl” out. No one even cares that Evie discovered this truth by divining it from the boy’s ring; it was just a party trick designed to insult the boy in question, they’re sure.
When Evie arrives in New York, she’s kissed (and simultaneously pickpocketed) by sweet-talker Sam Lloyd. She also reunites with her best friend Mabel and meets her uncle young assistant, the awkward and bookish Jericho, for whom Mabel carries a torch. Mabel’s a little awkward herself, often pushed to the background as her passionate and glamorous proletariat parents fight for cause after cause. Living in the same building are Theta Knight, a Ziegfield girl, and her best friend Henry, a pianist for the same show. Further away in Harlem, Memphis Campbell, a teenage bet runner, observes the development of his little brother’s psychic ability while wondering at the loss of the healing power that once made Memphis himself famous.
All of these individuals are affected when gruesome murders begin to happen all over the city, the only connection between the killings being that the murderer takes some part of his victims: the eyes, the hands, the mouth, etc. Each character in The Diviners has their own hand in the solving of the crimes, but in the end it’s up to Evie to finish the job.
Libba Bray is a masterful writer. While I have always loved her ability to write in limited first person, present tense (as she does in the Gemma Doyle trilogy and Going Bovine), her choice to tell this story in third person omniscient is perfect; I like Evie very much, but it was great to hear the story from everyone’s point of view in turn. With this approach, Bray is also able to cover a huge array of topics: Prohibition, the proletariat movement, the Harlem Renaissance, religion, eugenics, homosexuality, interracial romance, rape, and all with her usual unflinchingly truthful outlook.
Many books that involve people with magical abilities begin with the person discovering that ability; indeed, Bray’s own series, the aforementioned Gemma Doyle trilogy, has the title character stumbling upon her power in the first chapter. I was glad that Bray took a different tack in this series, choosing to introduce characters who are well aware of their abilities, even if they find them strange or frightening.
Bray always manages to write characters I care deeply about. This book has a lot of main characters, and that’s a lot of caring, but I absolutely felt for each person, except for perhaps Sam Lloyd, who felt a little underdeveloped compared to everyone else. And while Evie was quite dimensional, I wanted to believe even more; on the surface, Evie is a thoroughly modern flapper, spilling over with slang, drinking her cares away. But inside, she’s thoughtful and a little haunted, and she sometimes slips up and reveals her inner self to the other characters. While I enjoyed, funnily enough, reading this seemingly shallow character, I think Evie was a little too good at being the flapper girl, so much that the persona fooled the reader as much as Evie’s intended audience. Because of this, her moment of poignancy are uncomfortably jarring. However, I still cared for her deeply; when she cried, I cried.
As with most writers, Bray’s books always carry a common thread. The themes that appear in all of her books are seen too in The Diviners: the question of what equals belonging and being loved, the difference between outward expression and inner turmoil, and the dangers of being different. Also present is her sense of humor, seen often in Evie but in many other characters as well. But after reading all of Bray’s other books, I sometimes hesitate to laugh; you never know when an exchange such as ‘”Evangeline,” Will sighed. “Charity begins at home.” “So does mental illness.”’ is not a lighthearted quip but the foreshadowing of some terrible truth coming down the pike.
One of Bray’s talents is writing scary, creepy scenes. While The Diviners, being a murder mystery, is filled to the brim with creepy, Bray outdoes herself sometimes, writing scenes so scary that I actually got dizzy while reading them because my breathing was so irregular with fear. That is the power of a good author, one that makes the reader come back for more and more and more.
“Don’t tell me you’re scared.” George smirks. He has a cruel mouth. It makes him all the more desireable.
The [dance] contestants, young girls and their fellas, hold one another up, determined to make their mark, to bite back at the dreams sold to them in newspaper advertisements and on the radio. They have sores on their feet but stars in their eyes.
“Your mother and I do not approve of drinking. Have you not heard of the Eighteenth Amendment?”
“Prohibition? I drink to its health whenever I can.”
“What crime did she commit? Did she turn the gin to water?”
“She was different. That was her sin.”
When her mother smiled and hugged her and called her “My darling, daring girl!” Mabel was suffused with such warmth. And when her mother inevitably got caught up in this cause or that injustice to be righted, Mabel would stand at her side,playing the dutiful daughter, proving just how indispensable she was. People who were helpful and indispensable were loved. Weren’t they?
Mabel was tired of being overlooked or compared to someone’s sister or passed off as a sweet, harmless girl, the sort nobody minded but nobody sought out, either.
Yes, she was too much. She felt like too much inside all the time. So why wasn’t she ever enough?
The song was a lie, a shiny bauble meant to distract people from their cares and woes. But they’d all agreed silently to be blinded by it […] They kept the lie going, and the people loved it.