Of Bright Lights, Jazz Babies, and the Light and Shadow of the Big Apple – A Review of The Diviners by Libba Bray

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Of all American cities, none stand so tall or loom so large in the imagination as New York. The subject of novels, poetry, and music from Sinatra to Jay-Z, New York has become a symbol and a byword for bright lights, big dreams, and every aspiration achieved. And though this neon-lit, optimistic vision of New York is no longer as accurate as it used to be, it is still a vision enshrined in literature and entertainment, one that writers, musicians, and filmmakers still revisit every now and then.

If one were to go back and attempt to understand where this image came from, one would find that much of New York’s mythology was made in the early twentieth century, particularly during the Roaring Twenties: the Jazz Age, as F. Scott Fitzgerald named the period, when flappers danced in speakeasies playing Harlem jazz, when the future seemed brighter than bright, when dreams really could come true, if one was willing to work hard enough to reach them. But the brighter the lights, the darker the shadow: racism ran deep in the fiber of New York during the 1920s, as did poverty, crime and corruption – as it still does today. Sometimes it seems as if all that bright, shiny optimism is necessary because the other side is so dark.

It is with this understanding of New York’s dual nature that Libba Bray writes The Diviners, the first novel in a series (woe is me!) of the same title. The story is about Evangeline “Evie” O’Neill, a “bright young thing” (or so she likes to think) who would love nothing more than to live the flapper lifestyle somewhere far away from her provincial hometown in Ohio. She gets her wish after she causes a scandal in her hometown’s tiny social scene, and gets sent to New York to join up with her mother’s bachelor brother, William Fitzgerald. To a certain extent, she does get what she wants: a chance to live the glittering lifestyle of boys, booze, and parties that she’s always dreamed of. But something much darker stalks the streets of New York, and Evie’s secrets connect her to a larger web of people and events that begins the moment she arrives in the Big Apple.

One of the first things the reader will notice, especially if he or she has read Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle books, is how much brighter and crisper the writing seems to have gotten. Bray has always had a gift for creating atmosphere and bringing characters to life – the Gemma Doyle books are proof-positive of this – but it’s like those talents have gained a sharper, more definite edge to them with The Diviners. With this clarity of writing she brings the settings of The Diviners into such sharp life that one could almost close one’s eyes and imagine oneself into the story, right down to the smell of cigarette smoke and illegal booze in a speakeasy; or the cold wind blowing off the Hudson.

This feeling of immersion is enhanced by the dialogue, which makes liberal – and, more importantly, appropriate – use of the slang prevalent during that period in time. I have read some reviewers state that they had a hard time keeping up with the slang, while others found it outright irritating, but I personally found it very comprehensible and, moreover, enjoyable to read. Language and dialogue, more than long, descriptive paragraphs, are the real keys to truly creating (or recreating, in this case) the feel and atmosphere of any setting, and Bray does just that by using 1920s slang as she does. At no point does it feel overdone, at least to me, and once again shows just how far Bray’s writing skill has gotten since she wrote the Gemma Doyle books.

But this newfound skill is most clearly seen (and best appreciated) in her characterization – and there are quite a few characters in this book, all of whom stand out in their own way. Evie and her best friend, Mabel, are the ones with whom a large chunk of Bray’s audience will relate to the most, especially if they’re coming over from the Gemma Doyle books. Evie and Mabel are young women in the process of growing up and finding themselves, similar in that regard to the protagonists of Bray’s first trilogy, right down to having to deal with the consequences of having a mysterious, magical talent – or at least, that’s what Evie has to deal with; it’s unknown as of this first novel whether or not Mabel has any such gift. Even Theta Knight, a Ziegfield girl with a dark past, will feel somewhat familiar to anyone who’s read Bray’s first trilogy, echoing the older female characters in those books.

The similarities, however, are merely superficial: Evie, Mabel, and Theta are standouts on their own, and reading about them is a joy and a pleasure. There are also other female characters who prove just as interesting to the reader: Margaret Walker, for instance, or the Proctor sisters, (who I think might be related to or directly descended from the Proctors who were tried during the Salem Witch Trials), but there’s no doubting that Evie, Mabel and Theta are three of the stars of this story. I say three, because they’re not the only standouts in this novel.

Aside from the female characters, there are now some really interesting male characters as well. There were certainly male characters in the Gemma Doyle books, but for the most part they didn’t play any major role in the course of the story. Even Kartik, who, due to his involvement with Gemma, might be considered a major character, pales in comparison to characters like Felicity Worthington or Ann Bradshaw. In The Diviners, however, there are three standout male characters right from the get-go: Memphis, a young man with aspirations to be a poet; Sam Lloyd, a smooth-talking thief; and Jericho, assistant to Evie’s uncle William Fitzgerald. With the three of them Bray proves she’s just as capable of writing male characters who are just as interesting as her female characters. There are other male characters, of course, like Henry, Theta’s “brother,” or Uncle Will, or even Blind Bill Johnson, but they don’t have central roles in the same way that Memphis, Sam, and Jericho do – not in this novel, anyway.

Another thing Bray is adept at is addressing issues of race and gender and how they work in society. She proved she was more than capable of this in the Gemma Doyle books, and she does so once more in The Diviners. I mentioned earlier that racism, poverty, and corruption ran deep in the fabric of 1920s New York, and in America in general, and Bray shows this in small, but clear, ways throughout the course of the story. Evie, for instance, is drawn to the flapper lifestyle because she believes it will grant her a measure of power and control over her own life that her conservative parents (specifically her mother) would not let her have. Memphis, as an African-American, struggles against racial prejudice whenever he leaves Harlem, and sometimes inside Harlem, too. What Bray is very good at is tackling these themes without getting too preachy; she did that in the Gemma Doyle books, and she does that again in The Diviners.

As for the plot, Bray has created one that is thrilling and entertaining. The novel starts out slow at first, mostly because Bray has so many characters that she has to spend a significant amount of time introducing them and setting up her world, but she does this so well and her characters are so interesting that this slow first third doesn’t feel like a horrific slog. But slowly, slowly, the action builds up as things come to a head, going into a screaming dive that made me drop everything I was doing for the sake of knowing what was going to happen next. Bray’s antagonist is a familiar figure to anyone who watches Criminal Minds or enjoys reading serial-killer novels, but the way she handles said antagonist will likely cause at least a few chills to go up and down the reader’s spine. The novel’s ending is not too much of a cliffhanger, but there are more than a few loose ends, even before the reader gets to the ending, and they lay the groundwork for what will (or may) happen in the upcoming novels.

Overall, The Diviners is an excellent, entertaining read. Bray’s writing style is significantly improved, stylistically speaking, when compared to the Gemma Doyle books, but her gift for characterization and handling themes related to gender and prejudice is still there and very much in play. The novel is, admittedly, a long one, especially for a YA novel, but the plot is solid, and though slow, has a great payoff at the end with a promise for more. The only problem with getting to the end of the novel, is this: waiting for the next one to come out.

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