(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.
1. It’s a great novel about writing. Morag’s development as a writer is the central theme of this story, her endless quest to find and use and refine her authentic voice. I don’t know of any novel that better explores the writing process, from Morag’s endless self-questioning of the words and phrases she uses, even in her stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, to the realistic depiction of her constant efforts to find time to write even while interrupted by the people around her. The format of the book itself is the perfect blend of the modern and postmodern — Laurence plays around with different formats for her storytelling, but never to the point where style draws the attention away from substance, that is, from telling a great story with strong, unforgettable characters.
It’s both a beautifully written novel and a beautiful novel about writing. It’s also poignant in a way that couldn’t have been apparent in 1974, because while Laurence went on to write many other things, including children’s books, in her later life, she never wrote another novel, though she lived another 13 years. With The Diviners, the Manawaka cycle is complete. Throughout the saga, the major characters from one story appear as minor characters in the other books, and when Morag Gunn accidentally comes into possession of Hagar Shipley’s lost plaid pin from way back in The Stone Angel and adopts its clan motto as her own, it’s a clear indication that this story of a town and its people has come full circle, from the strong and angry woman who began the saga to the the strong and angry woman who completes it. This suggests Laurence probably intended The Diviners to be the last Manawaka novel; she may not have intended it to be her last novel ever. But there’s an intimation of that in The Diviners itself — there are references throughout to The Tempest, and when Morag’s friend Royland, the “diviner” of the title, confides in her that he has lost his ability to dowse for wells, Moran clearly sees this as a foreshadowing: she, too, will lose her “powers” someday; every artist will. The Diviners is, then, not just a novel about a writer finding her voice, but also about a writer contemplating the loss of that voice, that gift.
2. It’s a great feminist novel. All the Laurence Manawaka novels are feminist novels, explorations of women born in a place and time where the simple fact of being a woman limits their choices. They all, in various ways, struggle against those restrictions, Morag perhaps more obviously than most. So many mid-twentieth-century feminist struggles are insightfully explored through Morag’s story — the desire to be an independent woman, valued for who she is, against the desire to be pretty, to be appealing and attractive to men; the desire for marriage and companionship against the need for freedom. Morag’s marriage to Brooke is the prototype of so many marriages of that era that began well — Morag finally finds a man who not only thinks she is attractive, but respects and understands her — but falls apart as she grows to realize that what Brooke wants is a wife who will be an extension of himself, not a human being with her own career, her own desires, and her own problems. In mid-life, when the present-day part of the story is set, we see Morag in her late forties, having achieved the independence she fought so long and hard for — but still wishing she had someone in her life with whom she could have good sex at the end of a long day. And you sure can’t blame her for that!
3. It’s a great Canadian novel. It may even be the great Canadian novel. Of course, Canada is such a vast, sprawling and diverse country that any great Canadian novel has to be, by definition, a regional novel, and it can convey only a slice of our national experience (the same is true of the Great American Novel, I think). I could easily argue that The Diviners is explicitly a western Canadian novel, a prairie novel (even though Morag ends up, as Margaret Laurence did, writing the novel in an Ontario farmhouse), and that it captures nothing of my East Coast experience; from that perspective, I might nominate Michael Crummey’s Galore as the Great Canadian novel, since it is certainly the Great Newfoundland Novel.
But even taking into account the fact that no one story can encompass the experience of a whole nation, I think there’s a strong case to be made for The Diviners as the GCN. It touches on so many aspects of Canadian experience. Some of these are, of course, also universal experience — such as the ache of the young person who can’t wait to get away from her small, narrow rural town, then finds she feels out of place in the big city and will always be tied to that small town in some say — though she never goes back to live there. Even the fact that Morag, like Laurence, lives for many years in England, is somehow essentially Canadian: so many of us feel we have to leave our country to find it.
But I’d argue that what makes The Diviners such a great national story is the way it plays with, indeed harps upon, the theme of the violence that has been done to our native people. Native people in The Diviners are represented by the Tonerre family of Manawaka — a poor Metis family living on the fringes of the community under the care of their drunken father Lazarus, whose wife has left him and who struggles to provide as best he can for five children, three of whom ultimately meet untimely and violent deaths (as do two of his grandchildren). One of the two survivors of Lazarus’s family is Morag’s friend and sometime lover Jules, a singer/songwriter who puts his family’s pain to poignant words and music. In Morag’s relationship with Jules, she is never allowed to forget — he never allows her to forget — that she is white and he is Metis, that his people and his family have suffered horribly because of what her people have done to them. The way Morag incorporates her foster-father Christy’s tales of Piper Gunn and Jules’s tales of Rider Tonerre — who, if they were real people rather than myths, would have fought on opposite sides of the Red River Rebellion — illustrates how Morag struggles with this conflicted and conflicting heritage. This heritage is embodied in Pique, the daughter Morag and Jules have together, who chooses to embrace her native heritage and live among her Metis family back in Manitoba. The relationship between Morag and Jules is never an easy one — and, Laurence suggests, it shouldn’t be, because the relationship between white and Native Canadians is never easy either. It bears the weight of a history that is often terrible, and scars that have not even begun to heal in our own time.
So there you have my three reasons why The Diviners is a great novel. It’s also a novel that, when it was published, faced much criticism and many challenges for profane language and “obscenity” (that is, fairly frank and realistic depictions of sex). So it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an honest novel that explores a woman’s life from all angles. Really though, for me, it comes down to this — this is a novel I read when I was young that moved me deeply. This week I re-read it, now that I’m pretty much the same age Morag is at the end of the story — and it still moves me. It might move you too.