Last night, upon finishing Libba Bray’s The Diviners, the first in a series set in 1920s New York City, I took a walk around my Brooklyn neighborhood (not far from the now-shuttered cafe where Bray wrote this book) in that dream state a good movie sometimes leaves you in. Though sometimes a gruesome story, The Diviners manages to portray the city with rose-colored lenses. Reading the main character’s chaotic first encounters made me think ‘Ah, I want to live there’.
Then this morning. Car horns blaring before the sun was up, a perfectly healthy tree being cut down behind our building and out front another tree being trimmed with what sounded like teeth grinding through a chalk board. The noise math adds up to maximum moodiness, but then you step outside to blue skies and not-freezing temperatures and shrug away the annoyances. The rosy hue is gone nonetheless and I’m wondering if building a deeper sense of the city’s history would help me appreciate it more while I’m still here. And because history books sometimes make me sleepy, I’m thinking fictional history may work, too.
If you’re the kind of reader who enters into a new book with skepticism, wanting it to convince you its worth your time fast, you won’t be disappointed by the beginning. We open to a dying party in a Manhattan apartment. Desperate to impress her guests, the hostess pulls out the old ouija board from the closet and unknowingly unleashes a naughty beast on her fine city.
Evie is seventeen and way too big for her small-minded Ohio town. She’s not too broken up when her parents send her to live with her uncle in New York City as punishment. When she arrives and discovers the city is full of charming crooks and her uncle runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, a.k.a. The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies, her time promises to be lively if not exactly as she’d envisioned.
Evie is an open-to-everything flapper-in-the-making; she’s a flawed, witty heroine you’re happy to spend time with. She embraces everything the city has to offer an then some, but she has no idea how dark it gets beneath the surface. Not until the mutilated bodies start showing up and the police require her uncle’s knowledge of the occult.
The man stepped from the mist as if born of it.
This is a supernatural murder mystery inside of an even bigger problem, and that’s where the diviners begin to fall in to place. Diviners are people with special gifts. Evie is an object reader who can tell a person’s secrets by holding a personal belonging. Others can walk through dreams, prophetize or heal. The young ones don’t know what they are or how to recognize others who are like them. They don’t even realize they’re being called.
As you can imagine, there’s an unusually broad cast of characters and the best part is they’re fully fleshed out each with their own desires and pain. In addition to the snappy dialogue and jazzy scenes, Bray makes you feel present in the 20s with textures and giggle juice, police corruption, racial tensions and the freedom young girls felt chopping off their hair and aspiring to have professions. They’re modern gals who don’t want to dwell on the past, but a storm is coming and without understanding who they are, they won’t stand a fighting chance.
I’m always hesitant to start a big fat book, but this one flies by. I wasn’t a big fan of the author’s Gemma Doyle series, but I liked Going Bovine and I’m glad I gave this a chance. It’s a fun, creepy book that fully invokes the 1920s. Plus it works its bum off to set up what’s already a much anticipated series. Good job, neighbor.