“The Diviners” by Libba Bray

Following in a trend of, “I’m incapable of doing any work on a Saturday for some unknown reason,” I decided instead to read The Diviners, a book I borrowed from the library a couple of weeks back. It’s nearly 600 pages long and it’s been sitting on my shelf looking guilty about that, but also somewhat understanding of the fact that I couldn’t justify reading it until my exams are over.

the divinersThey’re not over, but I wasn’t doing anything useful by staring at my notes and taking absolutely nothing in, so I decided to give it a go. As evidenced by the fact I read all nearly-600 pages of it in one afternoon, I enjoyed it.

It’s set in 20s New York, which was interesting for me because I’ve been studying The Great Gatsby. As a result of my English Lit studies, I ended up reading a number of essays about flappers, the Jazz Age, and all of that sort of thing, giving me knowledge without which I probably would have been a little lost in this book.

That isn’t to say you need to be an expert on the period to enjoy it. Though it’s immersive and any slang that’s used is rarely explained unless it’s particularly bewildering, as the book goes on it becomes easier to understand, from the contexts in which it’s used, and the phrases I understood because of my reading (“Not everyone can be a Zelda”) wouldn’t make it incomprehensible to anybody without that knowledge.

It’s also fascinating in light of Gatsby because of the way that’s narrated by Nick who uses a lot of fairytale and magical imagery, giving this hidden layer to the things he witnesses. This book, by contrast, is fantasy, and takes that one step further. Perhaps because my introduction to the Jazz Age was through Nick’s eyes, it made perfect sense then to step into this novel and see magic, superstition and the occult in New York.

However, it’s a lot creepier than I expected. While there were a few gory murders in the first half of the book, I’m a hardened reader on account of having watched two series of Hannibal, and they didn’t affect me too much. But while gore doesn’t bother me unduly, I’m sensitive to creepiness and tension. The main reason I finished the book yesterday was that by page 350 I was looking over my shoulder every few moments, and I needed to finish it to make sure I could sleep.

I’ve never read anything by Libba Bray before, but given that she’s a buddy of Holly Black (whose books I’ve loved since I was twelve), I should have been expecting an element of creepiness. I wasn’t. The cover, though beautiful, and the blurb (which I couldn’t find because it was inside, under the library sticker), didn’t give a lot away.

However, you should be warned: there is a strong element of tension and creepiness, especially in the second half. It’s masterfully done, and kept me reading, though I did regret my decision to read so much of it late at night. There were moments when tension was almost replaced with my frustration on behalf of the protagonist Evie, whose ridiculous courage and/or stubbornness caused her to break the first rule of horror films: don’t go in the creepy house.

At least she didn’t go alone, but I was still sitting there going: “Why are you walking around in the ABANDONED HOUSE where they found loads of BODIES with a torch in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT? Are you TRYING to give me a HEART ATTACK?”

At times I could sense the novel drifting towards a love triangle (I have a hypersensitive love triangle radar which dings on about 85% of books in the Teens section of the library before I’ve even picked them up), but fortunately it kept mercifully clear of actually going there … yet. I can totally sense that coming in book two or whatever, but because the characters have had nearly six hundred pages to get to know each other and it wasn’t a love at first sight kind of thing, I guess I can deal with that.

This book features quite a wide range of characters, with the protagonist (Evie) being somebody I couldn’t particularly relate to as being at all similar to me: she’s outgoing, enjoys parties and drinking, finds museums and books dull, etc. However, her friend Mabel, whose parents are outspoken socialists who organise political rallies? I could latch onto Mabel a bit better. Or Memphis, who wants to make a living from poetry and dreams of giving a poetry reading.

The characters are also diverse: racially (I mean, it wouldn’t be Jazz if everyone was white) and economically (several of the characters are barely scraping a living), and there are also some queer characters, though none of them were at the centre of the novel. Even when it’s only in the ‘background’ like that, it’s nice when an author recognises that some people aren’t straight. It makes me happy.

There are show girls and wannabe show girls (which was fun given my recent interest in the musical Chicago), museum curators, mischievous and entertaining thieves, murderers, bootleggers, party-goers, Jazz musicians… in other words, characters you might expect to find in 20s New York.

The book also had some poignant moments, touching on the very real griefs of the characters and their pasts — the people they’ve lost, the people they tried to save, and the people who hurt them. It explores the idea of loss and how it shapes you, as well as what makes things precious or sacred to us.

It’s a good read, and I’m going to rate it four stars. Not only am I recommending it to you, but I also plan to read the rest of the series … though perhaps not quite so late at night.

Rating: ****

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