Jazz-era New York comes to life in thriller
Once again, Libba Bray has sprinkled whatever magical fairy dust she employs onto her computer keyboard and come up with something utterly new and compelling.
In the past, she has written Gothic fantasies (the Gemma Doyle trilogy), a book about a dying teenager who goes on a road trip with a loopy punk angel that somehow manages to be both wacky and heartbreaking ("Going Bovine") and a novel about teen beauty queens stranded on a desert island ("Beauty Queens").
While her subject matter appears to be all over the literary map, her books have this in common: They are wildly inventive.
Bray's latest, "The Diviners" (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), is no exception. That said, "The Diviners" strikes me as even more ambitious in its attempt to make a statement about the American psyche in a particular place and time: New York City in the jazz age.
Seventeen-year-old Evie O'Neill has a party trick that lands her into trouble: She can divine information about people from their personal objects. When she reveals an inconvenient secret about the son of a well-to-do family in her Ohio town, she is sent to live in New York City with her uncle, who runs The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult.
Not that Evie, a party girl and would-be flapper, minds leaving her boring hometown for the bright lights, nightlife and shopping of the big city; she's "pos-i-toot-ly thrilled."
But when a paranormal serial killer ("Naughty John, Naughty John, does his work with this apron on. Cuts your throat and takes your bones, sells 'em off for a coupla stones") begins to terrorize the city, Evie uses her power of divination to help catch the murderer — if he doesn't get her first.
Bray brings 1920s-era New York to sparkling life, from the slang of the era (gossip is "chin music," and a gullible young woman "was a real tomato who was not hitting on all sixes") to the speakeasies. But Bray brings in larger issues as well, touching on eugenics and the uneasy and sometimes ugly race relations of the time, the aftermath of World War I and the intense interest in the spiritualist movement of the late 19th century.
What brings it all to life are the amazing characters, many of whom, like Evie, have some supernatural power. There is Memphis Campbell, a 17-year-old numbers runner who once had the power to heal; a con man named Sam Lloyd who can make himself disappear; Theta Knight, a Ziegfeld girl who falls in love with a certain Harlem poet; and Henry Bartholomew Dubois IV, possibly the next George Gershwin.
"The Diviners" is the first in a planned series, made evident by the many dangling threads Bray neglects to wrap up by the end of the book. They only serve to make you tap your foot impatiently until the next installment in the series appears.
Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 17 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and link to past reviews athttp://www.saralatta.com.