The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to give it to Libba Bray. She captured the Roaring 20s in full color. I can tell she put some serious research into this book, but also endowed this period with her own spark and brought it to life for this reader.
This was an odyssey in some ways. A long read, and a long listen. Thinking about this book gives me an ambivalent feeling. The subject matter is very dark. The tone quite pessimistic. I realize that this is the authentic feeling of youngsters of this period. How can you believe in the fairy tales your parents tell you about God and country, about safety and peace when your older brothers and friends went to die in the Great War that seemed to have nothing to do with you in America? Especially when things aren't exactly fixed on the home-front? All that the old timers say seems to be hypocritical and designed to suck the life out of you. That they are selling you a dream you can afford to buy.
With this novel, Libba Bray captures that feeling of doubt and despair of this period, and how the Bright Young Things, the Flappers and their male counterparts, threw themselves into the party, the Now, instead of focusing on a future that didn't seem to belong to them anyway. I think my feeling of almost depression when this ended also related to the fact that I watched a documentary on Sunday night about the black American experience and how by and large most blacks never really had a chance at the ever-elusive American Dream, far from it. So I can feel that sense of disillusionment that some of the characters felt in this book, knowing how bad it must have been for many blacks during the 20s, and having false promises about how great America was rubbed in their faces because of their skin color and race, despite being born and raised in this great country.
She also shows the constant party atmosphere that was going on during Prohibition, bought at a hefty price, with the rise of gangster-related crimes in the cities. Immigrants who came to America to get a better life, find themselves living in falling down tenements and preyed upon and despised because they can't afford any better (or to buy into the American Dream). Doors slammed in their faces because of their ethnic origins. The rise of xenophobia and racial hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and espousing of racial purity through eugenics. I imagine it was a scary time indeed for youngsters like Evie, Jericho, Mabel, Theta, Memphis, Sam, and Henry. Much better to drown your sorrows in gin, constant partying, and watching movies on the Silver Screen, than to face the scary present and an uncertain future.
On top of that is a very real and very frightening supernatural peril, at a time where Modernism and self-determinism seems to counter beliefs in a supernatural God, must less anything like ghosts or even spiritual beliefs. How does one protect oneself against a ghost resurrected to continue his blasphemous work, when one doesn't even believe in that sort of thing, not as a Modern person? How can you conceal the fact that you have abilities that you are not able to explain in a rational sense?
Yes, combined together, this makes The Diviners not a fun read. At least most of the time. But it's very good. The characters were very vividly realized and I felt much sympathy for them even when I didn't agree with the choices they made. Evie, particularly, challenged me at times. Her reliance on drinking and her self-absorbed, questionable moral compass chafed at me. However, Bray shows the pain that lurks beneath her careless facade. Being the child who lived when her mother wanted her brother to come back from the War instead. Losing her only sibling to a war that didn't make any sense to her, and not even having a close relationship with her parents to console her. On top of that, her ability to read objects, and its effect on both her body (horrible dreams and headaches) and her reputation when she makes enemies by telling the truth, making her known as the weirdo who doesn't fit in. While Modernism seems the solution to the problems that she and many youngsters face, they run into the brick walls of establishment and parental authority, which is always telling them to follow rules that make no sense or have no personal relevance. Her dream to go to New York is a way to start her Real Life. She belongs there, where the party is, where she will fit in. However, she finds that many of her problems exist in New York as well, since she is answerable to her uncle, William Fitzgerald, and she's still considered a young girl to the establishment. When she gets involved in the case to find a ritualistic killer, her abilities give her a purpose and validation that she lacked before.
I appreciated how Bray uses each young character in this book as a frame of reference, across racial and social barriers, which the youth believe are artificial anyway. I sometimes questioned Bray's modern, almost Rainbow Coalition voice as I read, but with research into the era and the Modernist movement, it is clear that this voice was authentic to this era. I liked that she taught me a lot about the social politics of the time in the context of this fictional work. While I feel that this book has some very mature themes and dark themes and subject matter, I feel that it teaches important history lessons that a mature teen could benefit from. If I were a parent, I would suggest reading it first though.
The supernatural storyline was quite unnerving and disturbing. The tie into religious fanaticism made me uncomfortable, particularly in light of the fact that this was the major representation of modern belief in God in this story. I am not saying that Bray attacked religion, but perhaps these times were not as friendly overall to a positive view of Christianity not related to unpalatable social movements such as racial purity and isolationist xenophobia (keeping America pure). In the context of Memphis' journey as a young black man, Christianity doesn't seem to offer him much, since it has done little to improve either his life or the station of life for many people of his race. In the case of Evie, her parents' Episcopalian worship is strictly a social convention with little life or emotion. From that frame of reference, it's easy to see why this has no major influence on her own beliefs. Her friend Mabel's parents are atheistic social reformers, her father of Jewish background, and her mother a runaway socialite. In the case of Jericho, he renounced belief in a God who would abandon him to a life-threatening illness that changed his whole life. So when you have a killer who has grandiose beliefs of himself as the Beast who will bring about the end of the world, a very heretical corruption of Christian eschatology, it comes off as a very negative view of Christianity in general.
While Bray doesn't describe the murders in detail, she does show us the fear and the hopelessness of the victims of the killer, which was hard reading. Although society might consider them undesirable, to me, they were innocent human beings who didn't deserve what happened to them. I found it disturbing, although not gratuitous. Perhaps some readers wouldn't be as bothered. I admit I am a wimp when it comes to serial killers and psychopathic killers. It especially bothers me when religious imagery is mixed in with it.
While Evie's uncle Will is not a focus, I liked his character a lot. His scholarly bent and carefully disguised soft heart were a good foil for the younger characters. He is Old Guard, but the more time Evie spends with him, maybe he can show her that not all the values of the older generation are worthless. And maybe she can teach that it's okay to enjoy life and have a sense of emotional connection instead of viewing everything through a divorced and academic lens.
While I found the serial killer aspect disturbing, I like how this story sets up the series for a larger supernatural threat. I can definitely see this series building into something quite interesting and worthy of following.
Just a note about the narrator. She was excellent. She conveyed the characters very distinctly. I liked how she sang as well as speaking some of the parts. I felt like I was there in this period with her lively rendition on this audiobook.
The Diviners is a very good example of what young adult fiction has to offer to both teens and older readers who enjoy young adult books. I'd recommend it for the vivid and very faithful rendering of this intriguing time in history, the Roaring 20s, with an intriguing cast of characters that will bring me back to future books in this series.
Just a few casting images:
Evie O'Neill (Kirsten Dunst)
Theta Knight (supposed to resemble Louise Brooks)
Memphis Campbell (Mechad Brooks)
Sam Lloyd (Younger Christian Bale from Newsies)
New York City (Manhattan)-1928
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