I have an immense soft spot for the United States of the 1920s, brought about no doubt by entirely too much dubious reading material in my youth. Despite the looming shadow of the Depression and the traumatic recovery from the war, my mental image of the era involves a lot of delightful flappers, bathtub gin1, jazz, and women finally being able to vote. As such, I deeply enjoy books set in the period, and Libba Bray takes us deep to the heart of one of the liveliest cities of the 1920s in The Diviners, where our main character Evie is sent to New York for a punishment after getting into a spot of bother in her hometown.
This is a rich, colourful, flavourful text; Bray did a lot of research in an attempt to bring the New York of the 1920s to life and used it very skillfully as a backdrop for the novel, which revolves around magic and mysterious figures and evil on the rise. The bright lights and big city make a fantastic contrast to the darkness of The Diviners, both in the sense of the evil the characters are forced to battle and the difficulties in their own pasts, which dog them as ever-present reminders no matter how much they try to put on a veneer.
Bray plays a lot with language in The Diviners, celebrating the rich slang of the era but also working with vivid, atmospheric language in other parts of the book. At times, the use of 1920s slang feels a little bit rough, while at others, it’s perfectly utilised; it’s really difficult to integrate period language smoothly into a book and for the most part, Bray did very well. It was also utterly appropriate to the characters and helped bring Evie to life as a woman of her time, and as someone very much determined to wear a bright, shiny exterior to hide from the things she doesn’t want to think about.
This was a fascinating era in US history, beyond the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia some of us may be guilty of wearing, and Bray touched on some of that within the context of the story. I was particularly interested in her exploration of racial politics in a time when segregation was very much the order of the day, even in the famously freewheeling speakeasies and clubs. Integrated spaces were highly unusual, and a Black man dating a white woman more unusual still; what really intrigued me, though, were the comments from other Black characters talking about the white community’s love for slumming and tasting danger at night before returning to the safety of white high society in the morning.
Field trips to see how the other half live are, of course, a time-honoured staple of society. Not long before, the Victorians were going on slumming expeditions into the heart of poor neighbourhoods to be titillated by the plight of the lower classes, neatly ignoring the fact that the economic pressures forcing people into unhealthy and horrific tenements were, of course, created by the upper class. In the 1920s, making expeditions to Black or gay clubs was a rite of passage for some white people who wanted to flirt with danger, and it was just as exploitative and lacking in self-examination. In The Diviners, clear tensions of race are present in the text, rather than being smoothly glided over with a narrative about true love and progressivism.
I was particularly fascinated by the day-to-day life of Memphis, the main Black character, who works as a numbers runner and doer of other sorts of errands. Oddly enough, right around the time I was reading The Diviners, I got into a long conversation with my father about numbers running, bootlegging, and other, ah, ‘enterprises’ of the 1920s, many of which my family was involved in. Numbers in particular used to be a huge business, and while people are familiar with the concept of bootlegging thanks to things like Boardwalk Empire, many aren’t as well-versed with the numbers game and the outsized role it occupied in the 1920s. I love that Bray integrated that little piece of history into the book and played with the duality of numbers; both as a business, and as yet another example in the text of mysticism and magic.
I’m finding myself a little in love with the characters, from brash Evie to Mabel of hidden depths to Will of many secrets. I want to see more of them, and to see where they end up as people, not just within the larger storyline but as individuals with the capacity for character development. I’ve begun to care for them as individuals, and think of them beyond the text, which is a sure hallmark of success when it comes to hooking your readers.
Steeped in the flavour of the 1920s and backed by a solid, riveting plot, The Diviners was a delicious read, and I can’t wait for new entries in the series, because Bray has developed a fascinating world built on a fantastic era in history. And a highly appropriate one; sometimes I think historical settings are abused because they seem romantic or pretty, and in this case, the 1920s are actually a perfect and beautiful setting for the underlying story. It’s a story that couldn’t really take place in another time, and that’s an illustration of Bray’s craft and skill as a writer.
- Which is, shall we say, a bit of a family legacy. ↩