The Beautiful World of Libba Bray

In her widely read Great and Terrible Beauty series, Libba Bray introduced readers to a Victorian world that was both realistic and dazzlingly magical. Bray’s latest novel, The Diviners, perfects this world-building craft while drawing readers into the captivating age of flappers and Prohibition.

This mystical murder-mystery will appeal to a wide audience due to Bray’s adept meshing of many YA Literary genres. A reader that enjoys history, or fantasy, or ghost stories, or detective fiction, or the paranormal – or all of these things, will find plenty of each field to sink his/her teeth into in The Diviners. The story follows the heroine Evie O’Neill, who relocates from Ohio to New York City after her supernatural powers make an untimely appearance at a party. She embraces the fast-paced flapper lifestyle of the city, while helping her Uncle Will solve a series of Occult murders. Because of her gift of sight into others’ secrets, she becomes the most valuable tool to solve the crime, but puts herself in perilous danger by involving herself in the mystery.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the world that it creates for the reader. Bray uses precise and vibrant language to bring the story to life: the jazz music that serves as the background to the nightlife blares in “syncopated rhythms that echo the jagged excitement of the city’s skyline”. After reading The Diviners, it does not surprise me that Paramount Pictures optioned this story for a movie before it even hit bookshelves. While some might argue that the setting was excessive and overbearingly instructive, I saw the glittering details as elements of a world that was constructed with utmost care. Another detail that Bray pays close attention to is the dialect of the time. The slang is strange and even annoying at first – “That Ida was a real tomato who was not hitting on all sixes” – but the jargon of the Prohibition era is a distinctive way that Bray sets this realm apart as one of a kind. It immediately alienates the reader from the characters, but makes them want to learn anything and everything about this other world. I felt attracted to these characters with their peculiar flapper language.

The way in which Libba Bray structures The Diviners also intrigues me. While Evie is the main protagonist, there are many other characters that are privileged with narrative voice. Different chapters shift into the third person perspective in the novel, shedding light on the auxiliary characters’ pasts, thoughts, and secrets. For example, readers learn that many of Evie’s friends have supernatural powers as well, while she remains ignorant to this fact. Bray uses this narrative technique to allow the reader to make connections to the characters and their ideologies. Memphis, a poet/writer in the novel, acts as a transitional figure between the characters themselves and the reader. Bray uses Memphis to define the capabilities of story telling as seen in The Diviners. Together, Memphis (and Bray) keep readers “there in that moment with strings of words”.

Both world building and story telling come together in Bray’s idea of “nation”, which she sees as problematic. Uncle Will voices his doubts about the American Dream throughout the novel, becoming quite philosophical and existential at times (befitting of a professor). In a key moment in the novel, he explains nations to Evie: “People think that boundaries and borders build nations. Nonsense–– words do. Beliefs, declarations, constitutions–– words. Stories. Myths. Lies. Promises. History”. At this point in the novel, the reader realizes is not just a story about catching a supernatural killer, but that there are themes that run much deeper in the novel that Bray intends to explore.

In her author’s note, Libba Bray explains her curiosity of the dark aspects of this time period: “Often, the monsters we create in our imagination are not nearly as frightening as the monstrous acts perpetrated by ordinary human beings in the aim of one cause or another”. The issues that hover in sub-plots – anti-immigration sentiment, racism, the eugenics movement, the red scare – are the “monsters” that interest Bray the most. The good vs. evil battle between Evie and Naughty John, while exciting, is straightforward. The Diviners’nation of “freedom” battles these monsters, and we find no resolution.

With the first book in a series of four, Libba Bray masterfully sets the scene of the world and conventions inhabited by Evie O’Neill and her fellow “Diviners”. I will admit, when I first picked up this hardback the 600 pages of content daunted me. Could the narrative be told in fewer words? Yes. But a shorter book would not craft the world in the same intricate and beautiful style that has made Bray famous as a YA author. Could the sub-plots be cut back to deliver a more clean and clear story? Yes. But I believe a writer like Libba Bray, experienced at toeing the line between history and fantasy and truth, has an intention in every word she wrote in The Diviners. Audiences will just have to wait for the release of the rest of the series to see their diligent reading pay off.

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