This book was hot popular on the librarian listservs, which is why I decided to give it a go. Of course, I'm not a pioneer reader. It was published in 2012, and I picked it up at the end of 2013. That's okay. Better late than never.
A diviner is a person with the ability to see the future, a prophet or soothsayer, according to dictionary.com. The world of The Diviners is peopled with individuals with special--shall we invoke the word "magic"?--abilities, but I can only remember one who could actually see the future. So I suppose the title is a BIT misleading, but it's a great title nonetheless.
The Diviners is a huge undertaking, both because the book itself is hefty--578 pages--and because the plot indicates a much longer narrative, i.e. several sequels. It is 1920's America--Prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and rampant jazz. Evie O'Neill leaves her hometown in a hurry after she accuses a boy she knows of "knocking up" a girl (Yeah, I know. I didn't realize that particular slang term was so old.). It turns out Evie's claims are not based on suspicion. She can hold objects in her hand and uncover secrets about the object's owner. She is shipped off to New York City to live with her uncle, the docent of "the museum of creepy crawlies," a museum chock full of occult artifacts. Evie is a free spirit who loves to get down and get funky. She's a party girl, and it doesn't take her long to start painting the town red, alongside her friend Mabel, the daughter of radical Communists, who dresses and behaves like a dowdy spinster.
Evie is quickly drawn into a strange murder mystery, via her uncle, who is called upon to help with the investigation. It seems the corpses of this particular killer display signs of occult activity. The murderer leaves behind evidence that point to the bible, albeit an apocryphal version, and through their research, Evie and her uncle, along with helpers Jericho and Sam, discover that the murder is a resurrected member of a cult intent on bringing about the end of the world.
So that would be enough of a premise for a good novel, right? But, uh-uh. There's more. Woven within this overarching narrative are the stories of Memphis Campbell, a numbers runner from Harlem with a latent healing ability, and Theta Knight, a gorgeous chorus girl who seems to have some sort of pyrotechnics magic. Then, there's Sam, the fellow who helps out with the murder case and who I mentioned in the previous paragraph; he can will himself to become invisible when someone looks his way. It's apparent these folks are some sort of superhero superforce who are going to be important in the books to come.
Memphis and Theta share a dream of a strange man in a cornfield and the premonition that "something wicked this way comes," something even more wicked that the resurrected serial killer Evie and her pals are investigating. In addition, a woman referred to as Sister Walker is scouting for potential "diviners," testing Memphis's younger brother, who can predict which playing cards she is holding with astonishing accuracy. She shows up at Evie's uncle's museum and behaves cryptically, insinuating that something evil is on its way. Then, there is the scene of the gray man in the stovepipe hat who rips the heart of a rabbit for no apparent reason and walks around being evil and mysterious. So, yeah, I'd say there are more books on the way.
Although the suggestion of further stories and further mysteries is delicious, it is also a distraction from the major narrative in the novel. The defeat of Mr. Resurrected Cult Serial Killer (Okay, he does have a name--John Hobbes, also called Naughty John and the Pentacle Killer) is pretty anticlimactic considering that all the events up to that point have led to his destruction. Evie has a face off with him, there's some scary stuff, a bit of uncertainty--will Evie be his final victim?--then Evie routes him and he's crushed to dust. Cough. Cough. Bye, bye, serial killer dude. Then, the book just keeps chugging along with hints of some future menace even badder than Naughty John. For me, these cryptic droppings kind of took away from the Naughty John plot, and I think the showdown between him and Evie could have been more climactic.
The novel's real prize is its romp through 1920's New York. The reader gets a real sense of life during the Roaring Twenties, and it's obvious Bray did a lot of research into the time period. We get the Zeigfeld Follies, speakeasies, flapper fashion, eugenics, the Harlem Renaissance, and all that jazz. Some of it is a bit overkill, such as when Memphis mentions several Harlem poets and writers who are well-known today. On the other hand, for a large part of the target audience--teenagers--this will probably be their first introduction to the culture of the 20's, so I guess I can forgive Bray's overindulgence in naming nearly everyone and everything associated with the time period.
Overall, a whole lotta fun, this one. Dig in. It's all jake.
It's an edict: good writers don't tell; they show. It's probably what your English teachers told you. "Now, now, generic writing pupil. Good writers don't just tell you. They show. Illustrate it with language. Use examples."
It's been my conundrum this past week: how do I show that Meg, the character in my novel, is unsure about her relationship with her boyfriend and that one of the reasons she stays with him is out of gratitude? There, that was easy enough to write out, but, "Uh-uh," says my inner writing teacher. "Not so fast, writing pupil. You can't spell it out so easily for the reader. You have to be more subtle. Your reader will appreciate it." *Sigh* So that means I have to think up anecdotes that will illuminate the dynamics of Meg and Henry's relationship.
Good writers are able to invest these little anecdotes with poignancy. They dream up episodes that will resonate with readers. Really good writers are able to communicate the depths of a person's psyche, the motives behind a person's actions in just a few words. Bare naked descriptions. Unfortunately, I tend to be a bit verbose in my writing. I start out with a scene that I think will cover two pages, and it ends up being twenty. Why write ten words when you could write thirty-five?
But that was not actually my dilemma, not this go around. My problem was thinking up a magical story that would give insight into Meg and how she interacted with Henry.
So I've kept an eye out for examples the past several days, and lucky me, I came up with two.
The Father through the Window
The first came from NPR. I didn't catch the whole story, unfortunately, but I managed to pick up the nuts and bolts. A young black boy is sitting in his classroom, looking through the window, a bit bored by the day's lesson. On the sidewalk outside, he notices a man walking through the snowy, blustery day. It is his father. The boy is inundated with emotion. No one will stop to pick up his father, deliver him the ten miles he must travel to get to work. The boy wants to acknowledge his father, feels guilty that he is sitting in a nice warm classroom while his father battles the elements outside to get to a job that allows the boy to maintain the lifestyle he has. But he knows it is his job to sit in that classroom, to get an education.
I was struck with the poignancy of this story. It communicates a wealth of information with the briefest of snapshots into the boy's life. Mucho impressive!
The Miserable, Limbless Experiment
My second example comes from a novel I just finished, The Diviners by Libba Bray. In it, there is an anecdote describing the past tragedies of one of the characters, named Jericho, and explaining his weird mechanical innards.
The character tells how he suffered from polio as a child and was cured by experimental medicine at a hospital. There were others who took part in the experiment as well. One of them was a man who was missing his legs, an arm, too, if I remember correctly.
Unfortunately, the medicine began to have strange effects. The limbless man began to see things that weren't there. He was going crazy. They had to amputate his remaining arm. Somehow the man was later found dead. He had hanged himself in his room. The hospital staff couldn't figure out how a man with no arms and no legs managed to hang himself. It was a mystery.
Jericho explains that he killed the man, his friend. The man had begged him to put him out of his misery. Jericho took compassion on him and obliged.
This little tidbit tells volumes about Jericho, what he has suffered, why he is such a serious, melancholy figure. And within that story is an even shorter one that reveals the reason why Jericho is able to help his friend kill himself.
His friend tells about the war, World War II, and how he came across a German soldier who had had his insides blown away. "[H]e was just lying there in agony." The two exchange a look, and the man--Jericho's friend--put the man out of his misery. "He didn't do it with anger, as an enemy, but as a fellow man, one soldier helping another."
It is partially because of this miniature story that Jericho is able to help his friend take his own life.
Henry Loves Meg; Does Meg Love Henry?
I did finally come up with a simple story to illustrate Meg's relationship with Henry. Not only that, it reveals a little bit about her past and why she is burdened with her father's death. I hope it works. Maybe it will, but I will continue to look out for these tiny little stories I've described in this post. Is there a name for them other than "anecdotes" and "little stories"?
Word and Book Lover.