The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (Old Favourites #13)


(Note: this review contains spoilers. If you haven’t read The Diviners, I do give away a few major plot points here, though I’d argue it’s not primarily a plot-driven novel so that may not matter as much. Still, be warned).

This might just be my favourite book of all time, and I haven’t re-read it in at least 20 years. I went back to it this week in preparation for making a Writing Wednesday Book Talk video about it, and was happy to discover that it delighted and moved me just as much this time as it did the many times I read it in my early to mid-twenties.

Margaret Laurence published The Diviners forty years ago this year, in 1974, and won the Governor-General’s award for fiction. It was her last major novel, the fifth and crowning book of five novels set at least partly in the fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka (a town similar to Neepawa, where Laurence grew up). Together, these five novels (this is assuming you count A Bird in the House as a novel, though you could also call it a collection of short stories) chronicle the lives of women from this town — you have to say “from” rather than “in” because all Laurence’s major characters eventually leave Manawaka, though none ever escapes the hold the town has over them — over a time period that begins with young Hagar Shipley, heroine of The Stone Angel, growing up in the 1890s when the town is new, to middle-aged Morag Gunn, heroine of The Diviners, writing about Manawaka from her new home in Ontario in the early 1970s. 

In fact, although The Diviners is not purely an autobiographical novel (when people said it was, Laurence was fond of pointing out that “I have two children, not one, and neither of  them is the illegitimate child of a Manitoba Metis”) the parallels between Laurence writing The Diviners and Morag writing the book that she’s writing in The Diviners are many and obvious. Which leads to the first of three reasons why I think this is such a wonderful and important novel.

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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman

riseandfallAs I said in my last review, this is one of two novels that I picked up and read within a day of each other because I couldn’t resist the fact that both were set in bookstores. Like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Rachman’s new novel starts off with a somewhat quirky, reserved protagonist who runs a failing bookstore in an isolated community, trying to peddle paper-and-ink books in a world gone increasingly digital.

There the similarity ends, however, since The Storied Life takes place largely within or near A.J. Fikry’s Island Books bookstore, while the World’s End bookstore owned by Tooly Zylberberg in Rise and Fall is only the jumping-off place for her adventures. World’s End, described so lovingly by the author that it sounds like everyone’s dream bookstore, is where this eccentric woman in her early thirties has wound up in the year 2011, after a turbulent childhood and youth. But it’s also the place Tooly leaves early in the novel on a quest to understand her own past, and for much of the story it’s doubtful whether she, or the narrative, will ever come back to the quiet Welsh village and its bookstore.

For a novel that starts in a small, out-of-the-way place, Rise and Fall quickly turns into a sprawling epic, taking Tooly and the reader to Bangkok, New York, Italy, and Ireland, among other places. It also jumps back and forth in time: shortly after meeting the adult Tooly in her Welsh bookstore, the reader meets ten-year-old Tooly in 1988, travelling from city to city in the company of a man she calls only “Paul.” Then we’re in 1999, and twenty-one-year-old Tooly is living in New York City, again with a man who might or might not be her father, an older Russian immigrant named Humphrey. Two other quasi-parental figures appear in this stage of her life: the chaotic Sarah, whose appearances cause Tooly nothing but trouble, and the enigmatic Venn, whom she hero-worships. As for Paul, the father-figure of her childhood, he has disappeared from the story.

None of these people makes an appearance in the adult Tooly’s life: she seems cut off from any notion of family or personal history, until a chance online encounter with an old boyfriend results in a message telling her to come to New York because she needs to do something about her “father.” What father? Does Tooly even have  parents? Who are the adults who more-or-less raised her, what’s her connection to them, and why has she left them all behind? These are the questions that propel the story forward (always jumping back and forth between the three timelines) and the questions that kept me turning pages, trying to unravel the mysteries of Tooly’s past.

I loved this novel; I found Tooly herself a compelling character, I was interested by all the other characters — her four somewhat parent-figures, her bookstore employee Fogg, her ex-boyfriend Duncan and his family — and, most of all, intrigued by the links and connections that were gradually revealed as the story unfolded. Tooly’s personal story is set against the background of the changing world that all of us over 3o have lived through — the end of the Cold War, the cycles of economic boom and bust, the rise of the digital age — and these changes form a vivid background to the story of a woman whose girlhood unfolded across several continents, but who winds up at the World’s End, trying to create a quiet life among old books. If you dislike stories that jump back and forth in time, or stories where you have to spend time figuring out who all the characters are, you’ll hate this novel, but if not, I highly recommend it.

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

storiedlifeIt’s hard for a book lover to resist a novel set in a bookstore, which was my justification for buying both this novel and Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which I’ll review next. Although, since I bought both as e-books, I’m really part of the problem that plagues A.J. Fikry’s Island Books, rather than part of the solution.

A man clinging to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore  as the rest of the world shifts away from reading paper books — a man clinging to memories of his dead wife as the rest of the world moves forward — that’s A. J. Fikry. He appears initially as a cantakerous, grumpy, difficult-to-know man, a young widower locked in his grief and unwilling to engage with anyone in the world outside. But this novel can easily be read as a twenty-first century retelling of George Eliot’s Silas Marner: the lonely man, isolated from the community, is first shattered by the theft of his most valuable possession, then drawn back into life by the arrival of a small child abandoned in his shop.

It’s this latter fact — the arrival of toddler Maya in A.J.’s life — that’s most difficult to update from the original story, because while it was quite plausible in nineteenth-century England that an abandoned child might just end up living with the person whose house she wandered into, that obviously wouldn’t run as smoothly today, what with child welfare and adoption laws and stuff. Zevin skims over the legalities of this pretty lightly, doing the bare minimum necessary to make it just slightly believable that A.J. Fikry might end up raising this child. It helps if you suspend your disbelief a little at this point.

The Storied Life is a simple book telling a simple tale. It’s not much different, in fact, from the plot of many a romance novel (though the story takes us well past the happily-ever-after into a bittersweet and very realistic ending). The writing is lovely, and the bookstore setting combined with the little pieces of short-story analysis at the beginning of each chapter, ostensibly written by A.J. as a reading guide for his daughter, remind us that this is as much a story about stories, and power they have in our lives, as it is about A.J. Fikry and the people whose lives touch his.

Also, it’s a lot more fun to read than Silas Marner. And if you haven’t read Silas Marner, just trust me on that one.

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Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

eleanorandparkHaving loved Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl, I decided it was time to pick up her highly-acclaimed earlier novel, Eleanor & Park, a high-school love story set in the 1980s. Eleanor and Park are an unlikely couple: she is the victim of relentless high school bullying because she’s overweight, has flaming red hair and dresses eccentrically — but mainly just because she’s an outsider and the feral teenagers on the bus need someone to attack. Park, half-Korean, handsome, but shy and quiet, isn’t a target of their bullying — he’s grown up with these kids and has an uneasy truce with them — but he isn’t popular either. Their friendship begins slowly through silent school-bus rides where Eleanore reads comic books over Park’s shoulder, but soon blossoms into romance.

But there are pitfalls along the way, as there always are. At home, Park sometimes feels smothered by his overprotective parents, particularly his father who is often critical of him, but he gradually comes to realize that his home life, for all its annoyances, is built on a solid foundation of love, while Eleanor’s family life, which she tries to keep hidden from him, is a nightmare. The chapters told from Eleanor’s point of view in which she depicts life in an abusive household are bleak, terrifying and powerful, and help the reader understand why Eleanor can’t throw herself into teenage romance with happy abandon — and why her caution may doom her relationship with the one person who really loves her.

This is a teen romance with depth, heart and insight. I highly recommend it.

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The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, by Katie Rorick and Bernie Su

lizziebI was a big fan of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the innovative YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as a twenty-first century grad student’s video blog (see my two-part review of it here and here). This just-released companion novel is structured as if it were Lizzie’s behind-the-scenes diary written as her public story unfolds on screen.

 Lizzie’s voice and her telling of the story come across as fresh, fun and believable here. That said, I don’t know if this is a novel that will appeal to anyone who hasn’t already fallen in love with this version of the characters via the video series. There are dozens if not hundreds of updates, adaptations and spinoffs of Jane Austen novels currently available. What made The Lizzie Bennet diaries stand out was the vlog format, the way the story unfolded for viewers in real time with the opportunity to engage with it across other social media formats, and of course the talent of the young actors who brought it to life. If you’ve already been captivated by those elements and watched the video series, this novel will be a fun way to extend your involvement in the story. 

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The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kidd_t580This was a compelling piece of historical fiction from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. I didn’t realize till near the end of the novel that the main character, Sarah Grimke, was a real person — I assumed she was a fictional character, which I think is a compliment to the author because it means that the character was vivid and fully developed, rather than a biographical sketch of a historical figure. I entered completely into Sarah’s mind and world as she grew up the privileged daughter of a white slave-owning family in Charlestone, South Carolina in the early 1800s. Only much later, as the story unfolded, did I realize that Sarah and her younger sister Angelina were not just fictional characters rubbing shoulders with real-life abolitionists, but were in fact real woman who were outspoken not just in the abolition movement but in the burgeoning women’s rights movement in 19th century America.

The other main character in the novel, the slave girl Hetty who is given to Sarah as an eleventh birthday present, is not a historical character (though it is a matter of record that young Sarah Grimke did have a slave girl by that name). This is understandable, as the lives of slave women were barely documented and would not have made a mark on the historical record the way the Grimke women did. However, the fictional Hetty also gets involved with real historical characters, including the would-be leader of a slave uprising, and her experiences in the novel are a potent reminder that African-American slaves were not passive victims, waiting around for white abolitionists to rescue them from bondage. This is one of the best historical novels I’ve read about the era of slavery and abolition in the U.S., and I recommend it highly.

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Empress of the Night, by Eva Stachniak

empress-of-the-nightEva Stachniak’s last novel, The Winter Palace, told the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power from the perpsective of her servant-turned-spy, Varvara. In Empress of the Night, the story shifts to the later years of Catherine’s reign (although we revisit her early years in flashbacks) and the point of view shifts to Catherine herself. The story unfolds entirely in flashbacks, in fact, as Catherine is in her last hours, dying from a stroke. The story revisits her youth, marriage and rise to power, as well as key events during her reign, but lingers longest on a period near the end of her life when she was attempting to safeguard the future of her dynasty by marrying her granddaughter to a powerful foreign prince and naming her grandson Alexander as heir, bypassing the son (Paul) whom she considered unworthy to rule Russia. Both political machinations ended in failure, lending an air of despair to this portrait of a powerful woman in the last months and hours of an incredible life.

This novel is quite different from The Winter Palace in that it tells the story from Catherine’s own perspective, but both are vividly realized, well-researched works of historical fiction centred around a fasincating historical figure. If I were ordering a novel about Catherine the Great to suit my tastes I might want different things emphasized than Stachniak chooses to focus on here — for example, I would want to know a lot more about Catherine’s relationship with Gregori Potemkin, which I think is one of the most intriguing royal “marriages” in European history. But in saying that I don’t want to detract at all from the accomplishment of this novel — if you are interested in historical fiction set in Russia, this novel and The Winter Palace are must-reads.

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