Monday, June 10, 2013

Review of The Diviners – Libba Bray creates a character-driven, modern American myth

To be perfectly honest, I am going through a phase and its name is Libba Bray. Bray’s latest novel, The Diviners, plunged me into the world of New York City, 1926, and I never wanted to leave.

A quick plot rundown, courtesy of Goodreads:

“Evie O'Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City--and she is… thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--also known as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies."

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer--if he doesn't catch her first.

In large part I adored this book because of its uniquely diverse and therefore American cast of characters. Lemme break it down a little for y’all with some of my favorites:

Main character Evie O’Neill reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse – slightly self-obsessed and overconfident, but also bubbly, vivacious, and able to draw people to her like a magnet. Evie is a flapper with a BIG personality – too big for her small hometown in Ohio. Although at various points in the novel it gets her into trouble, and while she can acknowledge her faults, she never apologizes for who she is.

Her best friend Mabel Rose couldn’t be more different. Reserved and thoughtful, she struggles to live up to her parents’ reputation as firebrand Communist activists for the poor and underprivileged. But she has her own quiet strength and refuses to be what other people expect.

Memphis Campbell is a numbers runner from Harlem with an electric smile (see picture!). He’s a smart, ambitious poet who dreams of someday meeting his idol, Langston Hughes. He’s fiercely protective of his little brother, Isaiah, and ends up falling in love with a white girl (won’t tell you who) in spite of his friends’, and the world’s, disapproval.
I could keep going; The Diviners is full of fabulous characters with unique and unexpected backstories. There’s chorus girl Theta Knight, who came to New York and reinvented herself, partly to escape a violent past (Bray glosses over nothing). Henry DuBois, a talented piano player, is Theta’s roommate and, some suspect, lover – but she’s not exactly his type. With such a vibrant cast of players, The Diviners reminded me of nothing so much as Harry Potter; although Bray’s carefully-crafted plot is wonderfully spooky, I wanted above all to learn more about each of the characters, many of whom have supernatural talents waiting to be developed that will make them the “diviners” of the title in future books.

Part of why this book worked so well is because Bray tells it from a third-person, semi-omniscient, voice, but each chapter focuses on only one character at a time. It was definitely a great way to build interest in each strand of this admittedly hefty book’s intricate plot, since it made me look forward to the next time I would meet each person on the page. She has quite a knack for characterization and even minor characters won me over in short amounts of time. Her tone toward all of them is human and sympathetic in a way I’ve rarely seen. Aside from the actual villain, Naughty John, almost everyone was relatable and well-developed.

And one of the best characters is 1926 America itself. Bray obviously did a crazy amount of historical research before ever putting pen to paper. The slang (which I loved), the hair, the clothes, all transported me to a time period I personally knew little about but was thrilled to stumble into. The reader joins Evie in getting to know NYC as she steps off the train into Penn Station and immediately gets her pocket picked; as she explores Times Square and catches a black and white picture at the movie palace; as she sneaks out to listen to jazz and drink gin at a speakeasy. And the darker side of the country is there, too. We read about the wounded vets who came home from WWI (and those who didn’t), the female characters who want more from their limited lives, the characters of color being blatantly discriminated against, and the eugenics movement that aimed to rid society of the unworthy in a foreshadowing of WWII. For better and worse, the picture is a complete and engrossing one.

Overall I found The Diviners to be a beautiful snapshot of young adult life in 1920s America. While I LOVED the paranormal plot elements (Naughty John scares the bejesus out of me), I appreciated even more the novel’s broad scope and the diversity of its characters, as well as the hard look Bray is willing to take at some serious issues of the time that are still relevant to readers today, like racism, sexism, and homophobia. This is an ambitious telling of a distinctly American myth, and Libba Bray knocks it out of the park. I’ll be pos-i-tute-ly waiting on the edge of my seat for the next book in my favorite new series!




(character photos courtesy of


  1. Meg! I knew it was you writing when you dropped "bejesus" at the end. Haha! I want to read this! Can I borrow?

    Also, what a nice turn of phrase "... knew little about but was thrilled to stumble into!"

    Looking forward to more reviews and more reading!

  2. I'm so glad I found someone who loved it as much as I did! I've read a lot of mixed reviews on it, but I absolutely can't wait for the next book to come out!


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