I picked up The Diviners by Libba Bray on Friday and finished it late on Saturday night. I remember when I first started reading longer books when I was younger, bigger than the usual 200-300 page books that I was used to. I don’t know why, but when I was twelve, I started reading Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes books, all of which were something like 500-600 pages long. And finishing one would take a longer time, but I’d be so excited to get to the end and realize that I’d read what seemed like a tome. The Diviners runs up to 578 pages long, but I read that thing so fast, and when I was finished I was just sort of sad that it was over. I’m glad this is a series, but it’s hard to be just a couple of weeks past the publication of The Diviners knowing that it’s going to be a while before the next book comes out!
I think I’ve advertised how much I like Libba Bray on this blog already. Going Bovine, Beauty Queens, the Gemma Doyle trilogy; Bray writes so diversely, but so effectively. She’s starting to become the equivalent of a JK Rowling for me, whose books I’d actually go and try to seek out on the midnight of their release just to get to the story as soon as possible. Her writing, plot, and characters always have something about them that sticks with me as a reader for a really long time after I put down her books (and when someone asks who my favorite author is, I can’t help but always defer to Bray, because her books are almost all in my top ten).
There is so much to like about The Diviners. The story focuses mainly on Evie (Evangeline) O’Neill, a seventeen-year-old girl living at the height of the 1920s – the flappers, Prohibition, the aftermath of WWI, the nightclubs and speakeasies of New York City. Evie has a special gift: she can read objects just by touching them, learning the innermost secrets of the people who own them. This is what gets her into trouble in her small hometown of Zenith, Ohio, where she accidentally reads an object and exposes a scandal. She is subsequently sent away to live with her uncle in New York City, who owns and operates “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies,” a museum of American folklore, superstition, and the occult. When her uncle (who’s last name, Fitzgerald, is also a neat reference to the time period, and both F. Scott and Zelda both have references throughout!) explains that he’s going to be a pretty hands-off guardian, Evie is excited to explore the city and live as much as she can while she’s there.
She is immediately plunged into a world of Ziegfeld girls and speakeasies, meeting Theta Knight and her “brother” Henry Dubois, and attending elaborate parties and dances with them. She is reacquainted with her old friend Mabel, and Jericho, who works for her uncle, and characters Memphis Campbell and Sam Lloyd crisscross their stories with her own.
However, Evie is not the only person in New York City with a special power. And there is also something else waking up – something old and evil and set on a plan that will bring about the end of the world.
I hate being scared by movies; I love being scared by books. The Diviners knows just what, in the 1920s, is going to bring about an all too-real fear. The refrain that runs throughout The Diviners gives me chills every time I read it, “Naughty John, Naughty John, does his work with his apron on. Cuts your throat and takes your bones, sells ‘em off for a coupla stones,” and the murder mystery that builds at the heart of this novel is absolutely terrifying. But it’s held together by the teenage characters – almost all seventeen – who each have a special power that keeps them from being absolutely ordinary, in a time in American History where anything seems possible and identities can be changed by a couple of easy lies. Bray brings this historical period to life, particularly highlighting its youthful newness. The dialogue is fast-moving, employing great 1920s slang that is, in part, what is so effective in constructing this historical period. Theta says to Evie early in the story, “Swell. Name your night and I’ll leave a coupla tickets for you both. Well, I’d love to stay and beat my gums, but if I’m gonna hit on all sixes later, I gotta grab my beauty sleep. Swell to meet ya, Evil.”
There is so much history in this book, made palatable and interesting in Bray’s hands. The flappers, anticipation of the Great Depression, coming to terms with the end of WWI, the KKK, the eugenics movement, and the Chinese Exclusion Act all background the story and encourage an active reading of history in story. I loved The Diviners and feel pretty lucky to get to read two new Libba Bray books in a year basically (Beauty Queens came out a little over a year ago). I think this book will definitely get a reread before the next book in the series comes out.