Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray: Book review

Drink with this


“Whose whiskey? Don’t get some coffin varnish off someone you don’t know and put us both in the morgue.” It was a fact that disreputable bootleggers sometimes mixed the booze with kerosene or gasoline. Pg 74

Has to be swigged from a hip-flask, and has to taste raw and brutally strong. To recreate the effectin modern day UK, I recommend buying Tesco-own brand vodka - the kind without a proper label which costs about £4.95 a litre. Sure, it will burn the skin off the back of your throat and leave you retching in a plant-pot, but anything for authenticity, right? Being well and truly trashed will help you get through Bray’s 600 pages as well. I predict that the most bizarre plot shifts and narrative reversals will all fall into place. Or if not, you’ll be so ill literature will be the last thing on your mind.

What’s what

This is where I prove myself a literary dunce. Libba Bray’s latest young adult novel has won several awards, and is a bestseller which by all accounts lots of sensible people enjoyed very much. I did not.

It wasn’t awful, but it was disappointing. I really really want to rate Bray, but this is the second book of hers (Beauty Queens the first) which I’ve found a letdown. The premise is very exciting; (assuming you get excited by not just reading books but reading about books you may or may not later read) it’s set in 1920s New York, where main character Evie finds herself sent to stay with her Uncle Will. Will is a bit of an expert on the occult, which is convenient as Evie and several other characters in the novel turn out to have emerging supernatural powers. The main thrust of the story features Evie and Will and their hangers-on investigating a series of murders in New York.

Bray in this novel is quite obviously trying to write The Great American Novel - for Teenagers. I wish she wasn’t trying quite so hard to please everyone at once - her method seems to be to bundle historical fiction, romance, murder mystery and supernatural horror together and hope it forms an epic, sweeping whole. The effect is reminiscent of Gone with the Wind with an extra zombie subplot thrown in. (Note to self: brilliant idea, begin writing immediately.) There is simply too much going on, and the plots and subplots here could easily have been split up into two or three normal books. Diviners also happens to be book one in a series, and I felt the writer spent too much time setting up future storylines and characters to the detriment of what was actually going on in this novel as a standalone piece of writing. This was not tight or coherent but bloated and in dire need of editing, with entire subplots and characters who I could have quite happily seen swept away by a supernatural typhoon over Manhattan. (This may in fact have been an actual plot point in the novel - too hard to keep track.)

Daisy’s mouth hung open in outrage. “Well, I never!” “Yeah, that’s what you tell all your fellas, but the rest of us aren’t buying it.” Pg 136

I loved the period setting, which was evoked very well through use of vivid details and lots (and lots) of period-appropriate slang. At times this did get a bit wearing, and interrupted the pacing of the novel, but I’ve never read historical fiction aimed at teenagers which felt so realistic. In fact, the only adult historical fiction which I’ve read which inhabited its chosen time period so completely was Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning Wolf Hall. Bray’s dialogue, peppered with ‘pos-it-tutely’s and ‘and how’s may have been a bit over-the-top, but it was snappy and witty and for me that counts for a lot more. (Juno, anyone?)

Will lectured about belief in the supernatural, but the only ghosts that frightened Evie were the very real ghosts inside her. Some mornings, she’d wake and vow, Today, I will get it right. I won’t be such an awful mess of a girl. pg 288

Evie herself was probably what kept me going throughout the hard times I had with this book, when I didn’t think I could take another abstract description of evil in the cornfields. She was a selfish, extroverted bitch who just wanted to be famous and go out and get pissed, and was so much more fun to read for it.

Her relationships with the other characters in the novel rang true and were enjoyable to read. That said, I was not sold on the romance at all, and hated the steampunk plot twist thrown in with it. Considering that steampunk itself is a questionable case of genre fusion, I thought this was a baffling choice in a novel which already had enough going on.

The sun cleared the horizon. The light stung her eyes. “Kiss me,” Evie said. He took her face in his hands and his kiss blotted out the sky. Pg 578

The murder mystery/horror element of the novel worked and was convincingly creepy most of the time, although it felt a bit cliched to me - hasn’t the idea of human sacrifice as part of some perverted religious quest been done a million times in crime fiction? I feel as I’ve spent way too much of my life reading about Biblical quotes being seared into human flesh and bloodstained mystical symbols appearing on walls. Additionally, so much time was spent on this part of the plot and so little on the characters’ supernatural powers. It was intensely frustrating and I would have liked to have seen this explored further. For example, why are all the teenagers Evie knows gifted with extrasensory powers? This is convenient coincidence which made no sense at all.

She was tired of being told how it was by this generation, who’d botched things so badly. They’d sold their children a pack of lies: God and country. Love your parents. All is fair. And then they’d sent those boys, her brother, off to fight a great monster of a war that maimed and killed and destroyed whatever was inside them. Still they lied, expecting her to mouth the words and play along. Well, she wouldn’t. She knew now that the world was a long way from fair. She knew the monsters were real. PG 554

This is a book which is trying to be more than the sum of its parts. It is steeped in mysticism and history, bound together by grandiose prose. These supposedly epic themes and the overwrought writing did not cohere for me. Maybe at the end of her series Bray will have succeeded in her endeavour, but as a book to be evaluated on its own merits, The Diviners does not satisfy.


I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. And that is not the reaction you want to have at the end of 600 pages.

On the small screen

This would definitely work as a TV series. The interesting period setting, the characters who are ever so slightly caricatures, and the shifting narrative point of view are all TV gold. Heroes meets Boardwalk Empire? However I’m not sure if America is ready for the villain of this piece, a devout though dead Christian gone off the rails both morally and metaphysically….


It’s won plenty of awards and for young adult fiction it certainly packs on the weighty themes. This is a book which definitely aspires to be Highbrow. However its ideas are not new and I don’t thin

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