Title: The Diviners IAuthor: Libba Bray IPublisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for The Diviners:
New age. Old Magic.
Actual Plot Summary: Set during the Roaring Twenties, Evie O'Neil is a seventeen year old psychic flapper from Ohio who uses her divining talents to reveal the philandering ways of a young man who comes from the town's most powerful family. Evie's parents are forced to send her off to New York City where she is to stay with her uncle Will who runs the Museum of American Folk Lore, Superstition and the Occult. Evie arrives in NYC, is sexually assaulted…sorry, I mean kissed and pickpocketed by Sam Lloyd (also psychic) and makes her way to the museum where she meets up with Uncle Will's young ward Jericho Jones and her old friend Mabel Rose who has romantic feelings for Jericho (who was a victim of a government experiment that tried to turn human beings into cyborgs) even though those romantic feelings are not reciprocated. Mabel is the daughter of a beautiful socialite turned Marxist who runs a socialist newspaper with her Leftist, Jewish husband.
Evie meets and becomes friends with a host of characters including a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl named Theta who was raped and beaten by her husband before she killed him with her psychic powers, escaped to New York, met up with her gay, piano playing best friend (Henry) who also has psychic powers. She now lives with him as his sister at the Bennington Hotel which was built on a graveyard by a Wiccan architect who fashioned the building to be receptive to occult powers. Most of the important characters of the story are diviners and they display an array of psychic powers.
Theta begins a romantic relationship with Memphis Campbell who is a numbers runner from Harlem and has the gift of healing but won't use that gift since his deceased mother was unable to be healed. His brother – Isaiah – is able to see the future, but Isaiah is young and must be protected from those who would do him harm.
And this is all very interesting but completely subordinate to the actual story. The central narrative of the book is that there is a psychopathic, serial killing ghost by the name of Naughty John that was accidentally released upon the City of New York through a séance performed by a group of indolent debutants that were trying to spice up a boring birthday party. He kills his victims. He carves occult symbols into their bodies. He removes parts of their bodies, eats them and then publicly displays the bodies in various poses as the fulfilment of a cult prophecy that warns of his return to life when Solomon's Comet passes the earth at which time he will bring about Armageddon.
Evie and friends must unravel the mystery and stop Naughty John from fulfilling the evil prophecy before it's too late.
(Side note – well, when you say it like that, it sounds so stupid. Maybe we should just stick with "New age. Old Magic.")
This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for drug usage, cigarette usage, underage alcohol usage, extremely aberrant behaviors, references to cannibalism, rape and other extreme violence, abortion, extreme horror, extreme occult, and murder. It also receives three and a half stars for story development.
Review : "New age. Old Magic." Got it? That was the American Library Association's succinct synopsis for The Diviners by Libba Bray that your tax money paid to produce. I'm starting to see a pattern emerging from the YALSA book reviewers by the way. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of words used by YALSA to recommend a book versus the number of concerns that the average parent would have with a book's content if they knew what was in it. Remember, the American Library Association defines Young Adult literature as appropriate reading for children 12 to 18.
The actual reading comprehension level for this particular book would match that of a typical seventh grader…although, the number of characters that the readers must endure in the supreme sacrifice of reading this novel along with the variant nicknames for each character would remind you of something out of a Tolstoyian nightmare. So… comprehension aside for a moment, unless you are taking copious notes on who's who in The Diviner's world, you might find yourself spinning your wheels a bit.
The maturity level of the content is quite another issue. This book has several very adult influences flowing through it – Ragtime, The Exorcist, Hannibal Lecter just to name three off the top of my head. I wrote down more but they are lost somewhere between my notes on Ms. Bray's thesis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and her curious juxtaposition of the Roman Catholic tradition of transubstantiation to Naughty John's penchant for cannibalism. The author references many religious and political philosophies that ebbed and flowed through the early Progressive Era. She offers resounding declaratives on the melting pot's equalization upon the morality and validity of each and every one of these philosophies…unless you happen to be a seventeenth century Puritan and then you suck.
It's a lot of moral relativism for the average seventh grader to digest, but the reader will finally detect a trill of enchantment in Bray's glowing tribute to Fredrick Nietzsche. Nietzsche, of course, is an evolutionary moralist and ethicist who delighted in the ideas of life-struggle as a way of improving the species:
"Society, as the great trustee of life, is responsible to life itself for every miscarried life – it also has to pay for such lives: consequently it ought to prevent them. In numerous cases, society ought to prevent procreation: to this end, it may hold in readiness, without regard to descent, rank or spirit, the most rigorous means of constraint, deprivation of freedom, in certain circumstances castration." ~ Nietzsche in The Will to Power
There are some interesting rationalizations going on throughout this book in favor of philosophical agnosticism to be sure. Bray, for instance, takes her characters through the paces of discovering Eugenics in a booth at a county fair while searching for clues about Naughty John's cult. The characters truly abhor the movement, but, with no irony shown whatsoever, Nietzsche is granted the respect of an elder statesman when he is clearly a proponent of the philosophy that Bray is condemning.
And don't get me started on eugenicist Margaret Sanger who was the founder of modern day Planned Parenthood, but that didn't stop Bray from walking young readers through the matricidal psychic (Theta) discovering her unwanted pregnancy and visiting a back alley abortionist before allowing her best friend to sell his piano to finance an abortion from a good, clean abortionist who could do the job right. No problem. Just bob your hair and fuhget-about-it.
I've read the passages a couple of times and if Bray draws the important connection between Nietzsche's influences and Nazism and Progressivism then I missed it. This oversight is curious since she took such great pains to connect her character Naughty John Hobbes to Ronald Reagan by inserting a Naughty John soliloquy about immigration proclaiming that the "riffraff" should be turned "back at the borders. They're not like you and me, Miss Bates. Clean. Good citizens. People with ambitions. Contributors to this shining city on the hill."
Right – Sermon on the Mount. That's what she was getting at. It had nothing to do with subliminally connecting Ronald Reagan's oft cited farewell address to the words and deeds of a serial killer of her own making. Nor did it have anything to do with demonizing John Winthrop's 1630 sermon in which he admonished his fellow Pilgrims to be models of Christianity, which is where the phrase first comes into the American lexicon. That's just a coincidence. Matters not – if Ms. Bray's chapter entitled God is Dead doesn't grab your young reader's attention then I just don't know what will…as long as little Suzie is reading something, it doesn't really matter what she's reading. Am I right?
Strangely, I can totally see why the American Library Association likes this book enough to make it part of their "Best Of 2013" list. Please note the lilt of Ms. Bray's poetic imagery adorning her judgment of the American Dream for instance:
"Wind takes it all in with indifference… past the unfortunates selling themselves in darkened alleys. Nearby, Lady Liberty hoists her torch in the harbor, a beacon to all who come to these shores to escape persecution or famine or hopelessness. For this is the land of dreams.
…The wind sweeps over the tenements on Orchard Street where some starry-eyed dreams have died and yet other dreams are being born into squalor and poverty, an uphill climb…
…The wind has existed forever. It has seen much in this country of dreams and soap ads, old horrors and bloodshed. It has played mute witness to its burning witches, and has walked along a Trail of Tears; it has seen the slave ships release their human cargo, blinking and afraid, into their ports, their only possession a grief they can never lose."
The wind goes on for a while in its indifference. Suffice it to say that the wind plays important witness to the big suck-factor of the American experience. It's a wonder that anyone but Pilgrims ever thought to come here at all. The founding was corrupt. The Puritans were all a bunch of black-hatted haters fond of sentencing women to death. A bunch of white racists, bigots, homophobes who hang out at Harlem speak-easies listening to America the Beautiful played by an African American coronet player in the style of a requiem… except the white audience is too stupid to clue in on the mockery of it. Luckily, the seventh graders who will be reading the book are smarter than those indolent debutantes of the Roaring Twenties.
The murder and cannibalism and rape and abortion and illegal drinking and on and on and on…that's all icing on the cake for the ALA. What is important here is that Naughty John Hobbes is part of an Apocalyptic sect of Ku Klux Klan loving Freemasons…a sect that Libba Bray invented for the serial killing ghost that she invented as a way of proving the illegitimacy of the American Founding because the signers of the Constitution were…you guessed it…Freemasons. How's that for circular logic?
"She was tired of being told how it was by this generation who'd botched things so badly. They'd sold their children a pack of lies: God and country. Love your parents. All is fair…"
Good stuff. Good stuff. So let's see. What am I forgetting? Oh. Right. I would not recommend this book for anyone under the age of 230. Those are the only people who have a vested interest in understanding Ms. Bray's rage – seeing as how they are the ones who've been likened to cannibalistic serial killers.
If I could regain the hours it took to sift through the cruelty that's on literary display and wipe away the menacing sadism that the author presents as storytelling then I wouldn't even recommend it for myself. It's a free country. She can write what she wants and I find no particular fault with her other than that the book is long and sophistic and could literally drop 7 chapters without the reader noticing the loss…thus, three and a half stars.
The fault lies with the American Library Association for failing to fulfill its taxpayer sponsored mandate.