Friday, 28 January 2011

Book Review | The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow

Buy this book from

Cassandra Brooks is a single mother-of-two, schoolteacher and water diviner. Deep in the woods as she dowses the land for a property developer, she is confronted by the body of a young girl, swinging from a tree, hanged. When she returns with the authorities, the body has vanished. Already regarded as an eccentric, her story is disbelieved - until a girl turns up in the woods, alive, mute and identical to the girl in Cassandra's vision. In the days that follow, Cassandra's visions become darker and more frequent as they begin to take on a tangible form. Forced to confront a past she has tried to forget, Cassandra finds herself locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with a real life killer who has haunted her for longer than she can remember.


At the best of times, blurbs can be misleading. I don't envy the responsibility of coming up with a couple hundred words of cover copy which'll be all most folks see of any given story, realistically speaking; no question, the task of reducing a delicate and multifaceted narrative such as The Diviner's Tale into a paragraph or two of quick-fire set-up - the better to sell as many idle window-shoppers as possible on the intrigue within - without fumbling a few key facts or else giving the game away entirely isn't likely an easy one.

The synopsis you'll have read of The Diviner's Tale isn't a particularly gross offender in that regard, though I'll say it does manage to muddy at least one aspect of Conjunctions founder and editor Bradford Morrow's latest novel: the dead girl supply teacher, mother-of-two and sometime diviner Cassandra Brooks sees hung from a tree in the deep of the forest "with her [bare] feet pointed outward... like some ballet dancer frozen in the classic first position" (pp.9-10) isn't, as the sales pitch would have it, identical to the presumed runaway dragged from its inner reaches a day later.

Nor, indeed, are Cassandra's divinations limited to the whereabouts of wily water sources. Sometimes, she divines the future, too; fortune's fickle fingers and the dark hands of fate are for a devastating moment spread out before her in occasional episodes her ailing father Nep calls "forevisionings." As a child she saw how her brother Christopher would die, and found her efforts to save him tragically frustrated. To this day, in fact, Cassandra's powerlessness in those vital moments haunts her... so when she sees the dead girl - the actually not-identical-at-all (now that you mention it) dead girl - well. Perhaps you can imagine how she feels; perhaps you can grasp how the return of the spectre that's haunted her at such times in her life threatens to turn everything upside down.

The Diviner's Tale is a quiet triumph of a novel, more mystery than thriller, that has at its heart a family in dreadful turmoil. For Cassandra is in the process of losing her father to dementia: her father, one-time water wizard, who has been her everything, through the good times and the bad. She is losing him as decades before she lost her brother Christopher, and once again, there's nothing she can do about it. The Diviner's Tale is thus the tale of a woman coming to terms with the heart-wrenching transience of humanity, in miniature - and so many of the awful things Cassandra confronts over its perfectly judged course can be traced back to the well of regret she's filled to overflowing at the prospect of life without her brother, and now her father.

In place of Nep and Christopher, Cassandra's rocks are her precocious young boys. Twins to an overworked mother who just so happens to be the village witch, nevertheless they're a pair of charmers: sensitive, thoughtful, funny and startlingly wise. They positively tear off the page - Cassandra and Christopher and Nep too - such that in no time at all you come to care intensely for this family. Forget the precise nature of the monster that comes a-calling on Cassandra, never mind whether her forevisionings are of a crime or the divine, nor who left the vile hanged mannequin in the lighthouse on the island for her to find... the overriding concern of The Diviner's Tale comes to be: can this family, already unbearably tortured by the horrors of happenstance, come through the trials ahead of them in one piece?

Bradford Morrow's fiction has always been a masterclass in imagery and restraint, in beauty and suspense, and with his first novel in nearly a decade he demonstrates that the time off has not at all diluted his powers. Wistful and wonderful, poignant and chilling and driven by characters so true as to touch, The Diviner's Tale has been variously described as "sublime," "stunning," "superb," "mesmerising," "astonishing" and "beautiful" - not least of all. I'd add "haunting" to that honest assortment - culled from the likes of Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Carroll, and cunningly arrayed across the back of The Diviner's Tale's  gorgeous (there's another!) dust-jacket. Because who needs a blurb when you have such perfect verbs?

I'm telling you, there's truth in every word, too.


The Diviner's Tale
by Bradford Morrow

UK Publication: January 2011, Corvus / Atlantic
US Publication: January 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. Sounds amazing and SO up my alley. I've put it on my to-buy list and I'll let you know the results :) I hope to love it as much as you did.

  2. Small correction: those aren't verbs, but rather gerunds or adjectives that you cite at the end :P

    I read this book as my first read this year. Really should get around to reviewing it sometime in the near future, as I too enjoyed it greatly, but for slightly different reasons.

  3. Coming from the recipient of an honours degree in English, you'd think I'd know better by now, the difference between a noun and a verb and an adjective and so on. Not so much! :)

    The extent of my edumacation in that respect amounts to a silly little song about how nouns are naming words and verbs are for doing.

    Will look forward to your review, Larry. I confess I left this one on the back-burner for far too long after I finished The Diviner's Tale to really hone in on why it was such a delight. Figured I should say it was rather than nothing at all, though.

    Good reading, Aimee!

  4. I so enjoyed your intelligent, insightful review, and am glad to find yet another reader who shares my passion for this book and my admiration for Bradford Morrow in general. I stumbled upon your write up while searching for news about "The Diviner's Tale," and am very glad I found it. I look forward to reading your reviews in the future.


  5. Pleasure to be a pleasure, anonymous! :)

    And thanks for being so sweet. Always nice to hear from someone who's actually found a review handy - what with the analytics I know you all are there, but it's reassuring when someone says a thing. You know.