The Diviners by Libba Bray
Published: 2012, Little, Brown and Company
Series: The Diviners, #1
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal, Historical Fiction
Source: Library book
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
Some mornings, she'd wake and vow, Today, I will get it right. I won't be such an awful mess of a girl. I won't lose my temper or make unkind remarks. I won't go too far with a joke and feel the room go quiet with disapproval. I'll be good and kind and sensible and patient. The sort everyone loves. But by evening, her good intentions would have unraveled. She'd say the wrong thing or talk a little too loudly. She'd take a dare she shouldn't, just to be noticed. Perhaps Mabel was right, and she was selfish. But what was the point of living so quietly you made no noise at all? "Oh, Evie, you're too much," people said, and it wasn't complimentary. Yes, she was too much. She felt like too much inside all the time.
So why wasn't she ever enough?
Residing in New York City in the 1920s is a dream come true for Evie O'Neill, who finds herself sent there as "punishment" for creating a scandal in her small Midwestern town. Evie's parents decided that the best way for Evie (and her town) to recover is to have Evie go away for a while and stay with her uncle. The glamorous life of New York City is just what Evie's been longing for, and she has plans to reunite with her childhood friend Mabel and wander the streets for parties, excitement, and any excuse to celebrate life.
Life in New York City doesn't turn out to be quite the party that Evie expects, however, as she deals with changing friendships, she is the subject of unfair stereotypes, and she becomes involved in a murder investigation unlike the City has ever seen. For this murderer has returned from the dead and has a specific agenda to advance, one that will literally bring Hell down upon Earth. As the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, Evie's uncle becomes heavily involved in the investigation of these supernatural killings, and, as Evie learns about them right alongside him, she has a choice to make. She possesses powers that could help with the investigation, if she is allowed to help, and if she can bear learning the truth.
Is it possible to love a book without loving any of its characters? Not loving the protagonist is fine by me, but what about not feeling super strong or positive feelings towards any of the other characters as well? I'm not sure. As a character-driven reader myself, while I really liked The Diviners, I was not able to fall in love with it. I have never been a fan of multiple points of view, mostly because as I experience life from my sole perspective, I like to read books where a singular character is my gateway to this new world and story. I also worry that by focusing on many character perspectives, the author cannot flesh them out to quite the same degree as a story featuring one character's point of view. Although I do feel as though Evie, our protagonist, is very well characterized, I still wished for a singular narrator. By relying on a (large) handful of narrators, Bray's novel creates an expansive portrait of life in her fictionalized 1920s New York City, but I had difficulties really connecting with any of the characters and in remembering all of their discrete backgrounds and desires, except, perhaps, for Evie.
Evie is technically the protagonist and, had she narrated the entire book, I'm actually not sure I would have been able to finish it. Or I would have finished it, but not had a good reading experience overall. While Evie does possess admirable traits like loyalty, creativity, and determination, many times I found them to be overshadowed by her (many) less desirable traits, as she also tends to be impulsive, selfish, and downplay her intelligence and more serious qualities. And yet her superficial desires and decision to act out are presumably related to the pain her entire family bears in relation to her older brother's death in battle. A lot of Evie's actions make a ton of sense, seen in that light, which does help redeem her character somewhat in my eyes.
Although I'm not a fan of multiple perspectives, I found that the cast of characters made more and more sense as the story continued. In this book Bray has begun what appears to be an epic tale, one so much bigger than simply a story about a ghostly killer. Instead, readers can anticipate that the series is devoted to those characters who are actually referred to as "Diviners" for the magical qualities they possess. Naughty John's murders succeeded in bringing them all together in New York City, in contact with one another. Their recurring dreams have helped them recognize one another. And yet - they're not a team. There's no sense of shared purpose or cohesion among them, at least not yet. By the end of the novel, however, there's plenty of set up for how their powers will be needed in the future.
One aspect that makes the murder mystery rather unique is that readers know the murderer's identity from the beginning: Naughty John was summoned through a Ouija board, thus released from a sort of spiritual purgatory. Not only is his identity not a mystery, but Bray leaves her readers little mystery surrounding the murders themselves, as intermixed with the main narratives are chapters recounted by the victims of their meetings with (and untimely deaths due to) Naughty John. The suspense in The Diviners, therefore, isn't so much of a "who done it" but rather the suspense of knowing more than the main characters and being unable to hasten their discoveries.
Bray's writing style is a work of beauty. Fluid, poetic, and gorgeously descriptive. She details the scenes so well that it took very little effort on my part to be transported to various locations in 1920s New York City. While her attention to detail is incredibly impressive, at times it felt a bit much. One could even say the story is prone to excess, much like how society felt about the flapper culture. The Diviners is so rich in culture and language and historical facts that at times it became difficult to swallow all the information. And yet not any author can juxtapose the historical and supernatural convincingly as well as Bray does; it is far better to have simply too many details than too few.
The Diviners is a lengthy book, but the multiple points of view, many subplots, and intriguing mystery made the pages fly by. Bray is a talented writer, and, while I do not necessarily love these characters, I am invested in their stories and am curious to see the development of the idea of Diviners and their role in society. For anyone seeking a refreshingly unique and well-written work of historical fiction with a liberal twist of the paranormal, look no further.
Rating: 4 stars