Thursday, Oct 4, 2012 6:12 PM UTC

“The Diviners”: A Jazz Age thriller for teens

Libba Bray's sprawling supernatural epic sets a flapper on the hunt for a serial killer

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An epic novel with scads of characters has to be a daunting prospect for any audiobook narrator. The gold standard in pulling it off is Roy Dotrice, whose performances of four titles in George R.R. Martin’s blockbusting fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” convey a fictional world with over 1,000 characters, each with his or her own distinct way of speaking. However, this isn’t a challenge that often confronts readers of YA (young adult) audiobooks, given that the genre specializes in quirky, irreverent first-person narration. Once you get Holden Caulfield’s voice down, you’re set.

Libba Bray’s new YA novel, “The Diviners,” is one whopping exception, a sprawling tale told in the third person from multiple points of view. The print version clocks in at 600 pages and change, and January LaVoy’s narration will gobble up 18 hours of your life. You won’t miss them. “The Diviners,” a supernatural thriller set in Jazz Age New York, hurtles along with a saucy brio that successfully marries contemporary teenage sensibilities with a brash, youth-mad moment in American history. It’s tremendous fun, and LaVoy’s performance is dazzling.

The novel’s central character is Evangeline “Evie” O’Neill, a 17-year-old from small-town Ohio whose parents foolishly decide to keep her out of trouble by sending her to live with her uncle, the absent-minded proprietor of a museum of occult artifacts in Manhattan. Evie is a flapper, and — in a genre dominated by shy, bookish heroines — having a main character who’s so bold, confident and fun-loving (Evie is not above asking a new acquaintance if he’s got any hooch on him) makes for a refreshing departure.

But Evie is only one of dozens of characters in “The Diviners,” people of both genders, all ages and many ethnicities, as is only fitting for a story set in early 20th-century New York. The others include two witchy little old ladies who live down the hall, a tenement-born marathon dance contestant, a Hell’s Kitchen urchin, an assortment of African-American characters involved in a subplot set in Harlem, theater people, labor organizers, the staff of a Chinese restaurant and, most memorably, a wisecracking, vampy Ziegfield Follies chorus girl named Theta and her gay best friend.

It’s one of the paradoxes of great audiobook narrators that the better they are, the less attention they call to themselves, and it’s all too easy to forget that each of the distinctly individualized voices in this recording emerges from a single woman. LaVoy (a television actress and narrator of the popular Anita Blake mysteries by Laurel K. Hamilton) is particularly adept at the figures who might all too easily have slipped into caricature: Bray’s Harlem ensemble — a teenage poet and numbers runner named Memphis, his psychic little brother, their churchy aunt, a homeless man, etc. She also gives us an Evie who’s lively and innocent but never ditzy and a supremely sympathetic Theta, a pageboyed chorine whose knowing surface conceals unplumbed depths.

The plot of “The Diviners” involves the reanimated spirit of a serial murderer unwittingly invoked when a pack of boozy socialites play with a Ouija board. (There was, in fact, a Ouija craze during the 1920s — Bray often makes clever use of the considerable research she’s done on the era.) Naughty Jack sings his creepy, nursery-rhyme-like theme song, symbolically mutilates his victims’ bodies, aims to trigger a demonic apocalypse and otherwise behaves exactly like the baddie from a novel by Stephen King — who, along with Busby Berkeley, is an evident and pronounced influence on “The Diviners.”

Bray employs quite a few familiar tricks here, such as having a possessed child suddenly utter cryptic warnings about a coming “storm” — a device hoary enough that Neil Gaiman was making fun of it back in 2001. But that’s one of the advantages of YA; the intended reader hasn’t yet had the chance to grow tired of these old reliable gambits, and the genre’s adult readers are inclined to be indulgent about borrowings. The inventiveness of “The Diviners” is less evident in any single element than in the way Bray stitches all the seemingly disparate pieces together.

LaVoy’s narration enhances and emphasizes the novel’s unity, sliding easily from the eerie to the comic to the tragic. As different as Bray’s characters may be, they’re all Americans, and behind the ripping yarn that is “The Diviners” are intimations of what this country, despite its many sins, can offer the world by way of redemption. And for all the hokeyness of the ominous prophetic mutterings sprinkled throughout the novel, in this case they are perfectly accurate. There really was a metaphorical storm looming on the horizon of the 1920s, and since “The Diviners” is the first installment in a series, we’ll get to see — make that “hear” since I can’t imagine enjoying Evie’s future adventures without LaVoy — how this exemplary flapper and her friends rise to the occasion.

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New to Audible? Listen to “The Diviners” for free, or check out a sample.

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