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Sunday March 31, 2013

Flappers, killers and all that jazz

The Diviners
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co, 592 pages

THIS book left me a little torn. On the one hand, The Diviners is a gripping supernatural mystery in an exciting setting, with characters I couldn’t get enough of. On the other, author Libba Bray seems so in love with the world she’s created that she sometimes wallows in it, making the book longer than it needs to be, and making some parts a bit of a drag.

Bray sets her story in New York City during the Roaring 20s, which makes for a backdrop both glamourous and seedy, with the added plus of feeling quite refreshing in a young adult (YA) novel.

The book’s protagonist, Evie O’Neill, has been exiled from her small-town home for bad behaviour and sent to live with her uncle in New York – a fact that she could not be more excited about. She doesn’t even mind that her Uncle Will is the curator of the decidedly creepy Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult. After all, which young flapper in her right mind wouldn’t want to be in the heady midst of fashion, entertainment and nightlife that is the Big Apple?

Despite her carefree exterior, however, Evie carries with her a secret, a mysterious supernatural ability that has thus far only got her into trouble. And when a girl turns up murdered and branded with what seems to be occult symbols, Uncle Will is called in by the police to consult, and Evie realises that her gift may just help stop a serial killer.

But as the mystery unfolds, uncle and niece realise there is much more to the case than just a psychotic murderer – something more terrifying and perhaps even supernatural.

Woven into Evie’s story are those of many other characters, each with his and her own secrets: Memphis, a young man who runs numbers for gangsters and struggles with mysterious visions when he sleeps; Sam, a rakish street thief who is seeking someone dear to him; Evie’s new friend Theta, the glamourous Ziegfield chorus girl who is running away from a terrible past; and Jericho, Uncle Will’s seemingly staid assistant who is more than he seems.

Despite the dark subject matter, Bray manages to keep the book light and engaging, and a lot of this is thanks to Evie.

Smart, funny, loveable and spunky, yet exasperating, stubborn and self-involved, she is the kind of character that could have become terribly clichéd, and yet manages to be thoroughly endearing. Her adventures in New York – when she isn’t busy examining dead bodies – may be stereotypical, but are also extremely fun, and Bray balances these with the serious parts of the book well.

The other characters are equally strong; as a reader, it’s always a good sign when you eagerly wait for someone to return to the story, and I felt that way about practically all the main characters in The Diviners. Theta and Jericho are my personal favourites, with Bray doing a great job of building up their personalities while revealing tantalising details about their past bit by bit.

What does occasionally let the book down is the author’s tendency to throw 1920s details at us. Nary a page goes by without someone crying out “That’s jake!” or “Pos-i-tute-ly!”, and there are incessant descriptions of flapper fashion (bobs, pearls and cloche hats galore!), and so many parties with bootleg liquor that I don’t want to read the term “giggle water” ever again.

The fact is, Bray’s attention to detail and her descriptiveness are strong enough without having to hammer home the setting.

Another aspect that proves to be rather annoying is that, after introducing so many characters and intersecting storylines, the book does not satisfactorily resolve many of them. Granted, this is meant to be the first in a series (does every YA book have to be part of a series?!), but at 592 pages, this is a brick of a book, and it is a little disappointing that the ending doesn’t feel more solid.

And yet, Bray has certainly got me intrigued with The Diviners. While YA series sometimes have a tendency to lose steam, for now I’m willing to travel back to the 1920s a few more times with these captivating characters.

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