Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: The Diviner's Tale, by Bradford Morrow

In hindsight, I should have heeded my suspicions when I read the review of this book on BoingBoing, because it was praised as "literary," and in my experience, that means that it has pretensions to being a grand novel of sentiment and rebirth, when mostly, it's just clich├ęd navelgazing, with the increased likelihood of one particular plot device.

But the UK cover, which I thought (and still think) rather lovely in its design tempted me, and when I downloaded the sample chapter from Amazon, I genuinely thought the author's voice (or rather, that of the main character, Cassandra, equally lovely). Though I was immediately suspicious of anyone who would name a character who divines (primarily water, but also the future) Cassandra, I was drawn in. Not enough to buy the book, mind you, but enough to take time to go to Barnes and Noble and find it, and settle down at a table to have a closer look. I was drawn in even after finding a review on Amazon that mentioned the "tragic things" that befell the character when she was a child.

I'm afraid I didn't end up liking the book at all, despite the author's clever voice, and generally likeable characters. Morrow seems to want to use the supernatural (the divining talent) as a hook, but not one that will have any real force in determining what happens in the story's main mystery, so there's no real logic in the way that the mystery develops and unravels. This is a great pity, because I don't think the mystery was really necessary at all. There is plenty of conflict without it, involving, variously, religion, disease, different generations, and the tensions associated with fitting or not fitting into one's community. There's an acknowledgement thanking a divining group for help with research, and I can wholeheartedly say that I loved reading about Cass's divining work, and her relationship with her father Nep, also a diviner. I can imagine loving this book wholeheartedly.

But I don't recommend it. Part of the problem is that I don't think the mystery is well woven into the rest of the plot (which is a great mistake when you consider that this book is being shelved in the mystery, rather than the litfic section). And to go further into that, I need to spoil the plot, a bit.

*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*
*

Spoiler: central to the development of this novel is the revelation that Cassandra, the protagonist, was violently molested at age 7 by a friend of her elder, now-deceased brother. Morrow goes into a fair amount of detail, and I suppose I can say that the abuse scenes didn't feel as formulaic as they might have; but I was left wishing that I could remind the authors of the literary fiction genre (because that's the genre that Morrow seems to write in usually, judging by his Amazon listings) that there are more ways to create a complex, sensitive female character than to molest her. The molestation does help a major piece of the puzzle fall into place (actually, it drops the villain into the reader's lap, which is why I say that this is a poorly woven mystery), but other than that, it seems that it's there principally to add poignant drama to the story. And its principle effect, on this reader, is to make me think, "oh, the author got lazy." Morrow's not the only one who does this. It's related, I think, to the "dead women on book covers sell better than dead men," the crime procedurals that slowly film women being tortured and murdered. And countless authors seem to think that childhood sexual abuse/molestation/rape is the easiest way to amplify the profundity of their plots. It's not that abuse can't ever be written about, but there seem to be a whole lot of books where the point of the abuse is that it's somehow necessary to show that the female character's childhood had meaning beyond playing with dolls, books, frogs, or what-have you. That the said female character grew up; her adulthood proven by the pain of being assaulted.

All I can say tonight is that if that's their idea of how to write a character whose life has meaning, then I have no interest in their books. And I will laugh out loud when I see someone blurbing such books as "original."



4 comments:

  1. I'm fascinated by how much controversy The Diviner's Tale is generating, on so many levels. There's an interesting review/commentary about this novel at http://magicdogpress.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/divining-myself/ - - it's written by a sexual abuse survivor who felt that the book actually validated her own experience - - and she'd been charged with judging how well Morrow created a female voice, so one could say she was predisposed not to be favorable. Your point is very well taken indeed, but I suppose I myself related so well to Cassandra that I didn't see the molestation as utilitarian in this novel.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, interesting, and thank you for putting me onto that other commentary. I have my own history that I'm thinking about in terms of sexual abuse, and the other author makes me acutely aware of how the difference of my own experience might affect my reaction to the book -- especially in terms of the age of abuse. I'm avoiding going into the details here and now, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

    Maybe at some point I'll go back to the book and look at it again, trying to be aware of areas where I'm more than likely triggered to be judgmental. There were a lot of ways in which I really, really wanted to like the book.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I suppose it's our own particular histories with sexual abuse that have made each of us sensitive to this aspect of the novel. It's a difficult balance, separating the reader from the text, perhaps more difficult than separating the author from the text and its narrator.

    Is it fair to say we tend to be more conscious of when we bring the author's experience (learned through biographies, through interviews) to bear on our reading of a text than we are of when we bring in our own? Certainly it's an enlightening exercise, and for myself, I'm always interested in reading a book through someone else's lenses to see what I've missed - - which is, I suppose, much of what literary criticism is about. But now I fear I'm blathering.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking remarks about this novel.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Lizzie, yes, I think it's accurate to say that, and interesting, too. It doesn't get talked about as much because it's considered so subjective, but I think it is good when our subjectivity can become part of the conversation. Interestingly enough, I think that's one reason why I like Jo Walton's Among Others, which I've been writing about lately, so much, because it's all about that.

    I don't think you're blathering at all. I'm really glad you came by -- thank you for commenting, and making me think more carefully about how I'd read Morrow's novel.

    ReplyDelete