I have way more books on my bookshelf than I will ever actually read. Every closet in my apartment has books somewhere. I have a box of books next to my bed, and a storage unit full of books. Sometimes I will buy a book the week it comes out and it will sit on my shelf for years before I finally get down to reading it. I just like the feel of having books around me. Libba Bray’s The Diviners has been sitting on my bookshelf since it was published in 2012. I got a signed copy of it at a local bookstore in North Carolina, and I haven’t taken it off my shelf since. While browsing my books to find something to read for my children’s literature class, I saw it there sitting on the shelf. At 578 pages, it is not a quick, easy book to read. (Can we call it a tome? At what point does a book stop being a book and become a tome??) I decided to take on the challenge of reading this tome to meet my fantasy book requirements. About halfway through, I realized I probably should have chosen something shorter. I persevered, however, and now you get to hear my thoughts on the book. I promise it will be shorter than the actual length of the story, unlike some of my prior posts.
In The Diviners, we are introduced to Evie O'Neill, and Evie is not made to live in Ohio. She’s a modern girl, a flapper, and 1926 Ohio just isn’t the life she wants. Lucky for her, she offends a well-to-do man at a party and her parents ship her off to New York City to stay with her Uncle Will until the entire scandal settles down. Her uncle is the curator at the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, generally known around town as the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. When Evie first arrives in New York, she takes it upon herself to take in all New York City has to offer. She befriends a Ziegfeld girl, visits speakeasies, and spends her time drinking “giggle water,” also known as "coffin varnish," "hooch," and liquor to us modern-day folks. Evie finds out she is in for more than she bargained for, though, when mysterious, occultist murders start happening around town, and her uncle is asked to investigate. Evie herself is holding onto a secret, much like everyone in this book, and she finds out it will take more than some giggle water and a feather headband to help make the city right again. Click here to watch a seriously creepy trailer, featuring a song from the book that will give me nightmares.
The 1920s world of flappers and Prohibition runs throughout this book, but it is accompanied by a very strong fantasy storyline. It is fantasy set in history, and the opulence of 1926 juxtaposes with the supernatural in this story to make a very interesting read. In this book, there are people who are known as “Diviners.” This is not known to the public, nor does there seem to be many people even talking about it. Evie herself is a Diviner, and it is the reason she was sent to New York in the first place. Evie can read the memories stored within objects. All she has to do is touch an object, and it will reveal its secrets to her. She was sent out of town because she read a man’s object and revealed that he had gotten a servant pregnant. Evie thinks that only she has these powers, but she finds out about Diviners because of her uncle’s museum. The museum was built by the grieving brother of a woman who died after prophesizing upcoming events and talking of a “treacherous time when the Diviners would be needed”(p.44). Although they do not talk to each other about it, we are given alternating points of views from different characters, like Memphis and Isaiah, who are Diviners themselves. Diviners can have different powers, from reading objects, to telling the future, to even healing the sick and dying.
With a book this long, trying to figure out how to encompass the whole of it into one post is daunting. I think I have to start with my initial reaction. When I first started reading this book, Evie was “positute-ly” aggravating. She actually said that, all the time. She also added “-ski” to the end of every words, saying things like “’See you soon-ski”(p.21) and “’You bet-ski”(p.36). Honestly, for the first hundred pages I found her to be annoying, petulant, and rude to those around her. When she meets her uncle, after asking him for some liquor during a time when Prohibition was still going strong and a 17-year old wouldn’t be able to drink even if it wasn’t, she insults him. During a conversation about how slow the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult has been, she tells him he needs advertising. When he gives her a questioning look, she responds with, “You’ve heard of it, haven’t you? Swell modern invention. It lets people know about something they need. Soap, lipstick radios—or your museum”(p.58). Every encounter with her uncle in these early pages has Evie being rude and immature, as I’m sure Libba Bray imagined.
Things change in Evie’s world when the murders start. The entire tone of the book shifts from a light-hearted 1920s romp to a dark, sinister tale of a dead man come back to life to fulfill a cultish prophecy. John Hobbes, a man who was executed 50 years ago, has come back to this world to finish the prophecy he was raised to complete. He signals his arrival by whistling the song “Naughty John, Naught John, does his work with his apron on”(p.69). The main characters are unaware of who the murderer is for quite some time, but the author gives us a glimpse into what is happening by giving us chapters that detail the different murders. A girl is murdered, and her eyes are cut out. A boy is murdered, and his hands are cut off. Each time there is a murder, we are given a chapter that details the final moments of the character’s life. We are given the final moments of each victim’s life. The reader knows more than the characters, but it is fascinating to see how the characters all begin to come together. After all, it was prophesized that there would come a time when the Diviners would be needed.
Walking away from this book, I am glad I read it. I’m not rushing to shove it into other people’s hands like I do some other books, but it was definitely a solid read. I’m not one for scary stories, though, and I’m fairly certain the next time I’m alone somewhere and I start hearing someone whistle, I’m going to call the cops. If you like books like Maureen Johnson’s The Name of the Star, or if you have read other books by Libba Bray, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Just don’t expect to go anywhere for a few days, because you’ve got quite a few pages to read.
Oh, and this song below? I’m sure I’ll have nightmares (I’m the biggest wimp ever):
Nauty John, Naught John, does his work with his apron on.
Cuts your throat and takes your bones, sells ‘em off for a coupla stones.