A warning: this is going to be an incredibly difficult review to write. This book is huge, has a multitude of characters and is crazy good. I hope I can pull it together enough so I don’t blather on like an idiot. Oops, too late.
Let’s start with the time period, as this is the very essence of this book. It takes place during the Roaring Twenties; the time of nifty lingo, hot jazz and a prime focus by youths on youth culture and the separation of the generations (probably the first time ever). The slang is pos-i-lute-ly the gnat’s whistle, for starters, and it makes this book sing. In New York City, where the story takes place, there’s Harlem and its Cotton Club. There are automats, flappers, illicit hooch and freedom. Getting one’s hair bobbed and shortening one’s hem length became the great dividing line between your Pop’s generation and the Janes and cake-eaters who were scandalizing the nation.
This was the era of prohibition, liberation and segregation. The US was coming off The War to End All Wars, where many of the brothers, sweethearts and friends of the country’s youth had been killed or damaged. To try and forget, those left behind kicked up their heels and shocked their parents. Then alcohol was outlawed by the Eighteenth Amendment; but this did not stop many people from making or acquiring liquor; no siree. Speakeasies and clubs that served were everywhere; you just had to know the secret password.
There was a surge of popularity in spiritualism during this time as well – seances, Ouija boards, tarot cards being some of the methods that were used. Maybe again tied in with the dead from World War I – trying to reach them? These soldiers died far from home, their families racked with guilt. Such is the case of our heroine, whose brother died in Germany in a surprise attack. The brother that still visits her in her dreams.
Then there is the state of the races at this time. As the white young adults were interested in being reckless and living for today, it became popular to go to parts of the city that were considered to be lively but dangerous. In Manhattan, that would be Harlem. Writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were holding court while Duke Ellington played at the Cotton Club. At a time when blacks were not allowed into white establishments (unless they were working, of course) blacks and whites were mixing freely in joints in Harlem, though the whites weren’t entirely welcomed.
Our heroine is Evie O’Neill, of the Zenith, Ohio O’Neills. She has been sent to stay with her Uncle Will in New York City because of an unfortunate incident in Zenith. Evie has special powers…she can hold something belonging to someone (a ring, a handkerchief, a glove) and find out that person’s secrets. And unfortunately for Harold Brodie, she told everyone that he had gotten a girl pregnant. A girl who was not his fiance. Refusing to apologize, Evie is dispatched to stay with her uncle (where he runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult) until the storm passes. Luckily her friend Mabel lives in the same apartment tower where her uncle does, so she’ll at least have one friend in the City.
The secondary story line is of Memphis Campbell, a seventeen-year-old Harlem numbers runner who wants to be a writer. He carries a notebook with him wherever he goes to jot down his stories and poems. After an illness at fourteen, Memphis discovered that he could heal people when he put his hands on his brother’s broken arm and it became whole again. Unfortunately, he lost the ability at the worst time – when his mother was deathly ill. He could not save her. Now Memphis has been having a recurring dream about crossroads, a crow, a growing storm. Then his brother, Isaiah, starts saying odd things in his sleep about the Beast of Old.
From Blind Bill Jefferson, Miss Addie and Miss Lillian, to Theta, Henry and Margaret Walker – everyone has their portents and their secrets. Then a brutally murdered girl is found and Detective Malloy calls Uncle Will to see if he can help, on account of some “weird mumbo-jumbo” accompanying the body. “Harlot” is written across her face, she is shorn, broken, and bruised, and her eyes are missing. On her chest is a brand – a brand of a five-pointed star and a snake eating its tail.
The city is gripped in fear, but that only seems to fuel the younger set’s live for now mantra. Then there is another gruesome murder, and another, and when Evie, Uncle Will and his assistant, Jericho (who has his own mystery) slowly put together the puzzle pieces, what they find seems so ludicrous. Is there a copycat killer following in the footsteps of a long-dead murderer? If they don’t stop him, will it be the end of days? And what is it that is pulling all of these people with abilities, these diviners, together?
I usually don’t comment on the author, but I have to say that it’s obvious that Libba Bray did a phenomenal amount of research about the Twenties. Don’t be fooled by the sarcasm, flippancy or attitudes of the flappers and their compatriots; these kids are the lost generation, trying to regain their footing from the horrors of war. It’s their time to act out. Yes, it’s a big book, but all of the history, language and story within its covers means there’s more to love, baby. And I can’t review this book without pointing out the similarities between this and last year’s season of Dexter. If you’re a fan of the Showtime series, you will see what I mean once you run into the mystery. Eerie, especially since Ms. Bray was probably winding up the manuscript before it aired.
Here’s a great website where you can decipher the lingo used here: The Internet Guide to Jazz Age Slang.
4.5 of 5 Stars (Based on Ink and Page’s Rating System)
Genres: Young Adult Fiction Fantasy Paranormal Horror Mystery Historical
Ages: 14 and up
You might want to know: This book is a little more intense and creepy than most Young Adult books I have read. It’s a dark book, with some very graphic descriptions of the people who were murdered, etc. You have been warned.
The Diviners by Libba Bray was published September 18, 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.