The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

The Breeze In The Trees, Singing Weird Melodies (Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray)

The Diviners
Libba Bray
Atom 2012

New York City has much to offer to those who seek its unsleeping streets.  Arriving fresh from Ohio, Evie O’Neill spends her evenings on the town, living life to its fullest while her days are spent in the Museum of the Occult with her uncle. Alongside Evie work Jericho and Sam, both hiding secrets and seeking answers even as she herself learns about her own strange ability – not that she lets it get in the way of having a good time.  Elsewhere in the city is Memphis, running bets while trying to both forget and reclaim his past in a community where superstition sits side on to devout faith. Elsewhere again are Theta and Henry, learning to live with harsh truths and an uncertain future.  Finally, lurking darkly behind the bright lights is Naughty John, who has waited and watched and now acts horribly, irrevocably drawing all the characters into an ineffable and awful dance.

Evie is something else.  Effervescent, her breathtaking enthusiasm is directed at all she encounters, from elicit gin joints to her Uncle Will’s Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.  Impulsive, often silly and frequently selfish there is more than a touch of the Scarlett O’ Hara about her yet she is, at heart, extremely kind and very likable.  It seems that her determination to be a Thoroughly Modern Girl hides sadness and that, for all her bravura, Evie is a rather lost little girl. Memphis, in a way, is paradoxical to Evie.  A character who thinks on things deeply he has more in common with Jericho than anyone else in the book, wondering at his past and worrying about his future but, in his own way, trying (like Evie) to make the best of things.  The warmth of his personality lends light to the nightmare that haunts him and the confusion that surrounds his younger brother. 

Jericho himself remains largely in the background for much of the story, drawn cleverly into focus towards the end.  He clearly has a secret and some strange tie to venture capitalist Jake Marlowe (think Tony Stark minus the iron suit… actually, Marlowe probably has an iron suit, he seems like that kind of guy) yet the author is in no hurry to let us, nor the curious Evie, in on what lies at the heart of Jericho.  This pays off later in the book when all is revealed to heartbreaking effect.  In contrast to Jericho stands Sam.  Sam is full of mischief and charm yet his quick smile hides something much darker.  He’s pretty ambiguous and while hard to dislike, one suspects he wouldn’t hesitate to double-cross all around him to get to the truth he seeks.

Theta and Henry are again beautifully written, adding their own secrets and sadness to the mix, while lesser characters Mabel, Will, Sister Margaret and Gabe all seem fully rounded and fascinating – quite a triumph in a cast of so many.  Yet the triumph here, the character that holds The Diviners together, is Naughty John – a creature of such malevolence and evil that he becomes an omnipotent presence in the city’s bright lights, even when not on the page.

The Diviners is a long and ambitious book, tying together multiple story strands and delving deep into the dangers of fanaticism and the occult.  The book swings from viewpoint to viewpoint in a way that should discombobulate yet never does.  Cleverly, Libba Bray has written the character of New York itself into her pages and every now and again zooms out, portraying the city – and not just the city but the country – as a living breathing organism where the land remembers an endless past and the wind worries futilely of an unknown yet fearsome future.  Using this tactic, the shifts from Manhattan’s bright lights to the sinister lair of Naughty John seem organic and the reader is never unaware that the story being told is part of a much greater whole.

The writing here is exceptional.  The book’s opening moves us,  by way of the wind, from a frivolous yet pivotal gathering on the upper east side, through changing streets to a dark, house filled with dangerous secrets and is nothing less than stunning – as is the prose throughout.  Bray has written a deeply frightening tale that looms starkly against 1920’s New York and smartly inserts passages of real terror within gorgeous frivolity, leaving the reader scared and uncertain.  The Diviners is also oddly musical using throwaway song lyrics and a haunting nursery rhyme to imbue the book with longing and fear and loss. It’s extraordinarily clever storytelling, placing an excellent horror story in a beautifully envisioned historical setting. 

I nearly turned down The Diviners but in the end the lure of the 1920’s changed my mind – a decade that glistened between two wars, full of a hope that was epitomised by girls like Evie who grabbed at experience that rose towards them like the champagne bubbles in their glasses.  Luckily, I did change my mind as it is quite brilliant. While first in a series, it stands perfectly well alone and The Diviners and is absolutely, pos-i-tutely recommended.  And how!

This review was brought to you by Splendibird who would also like to recommend the fantastic audio book. Thank you to Atom for providing us with this title to review.
back to top