The Diviner’s Tale
Bradford Morrow, Corvus Books, 311pp, £16.99, hb
In The Diviner’s Tale Bradford Morrow’s protagonist is named Cassandra Brooks, reflecting her two primary functions within this novel, to be disbelieved, and to be involved with water. Perhaps too, they suggest that Cass cannot refuse her destiny to be a water diviner but that would suggest this novel follows the familiar track of a character needing to acknowledge her latent powers whereas Cass is all too aware of her abilities. Instead, I think Morrow is essaying a more subtle discussion about the responsibilities that come with certain skills.
A clue to this is the fact that Morrow eschews a fantasy landscape in favour of a contemporary setting. Cass, a teacher and single mother of twin boys, lives in a small close-knit community in the north-east US, the town where she has lived in most of her life. Admittedly, this is almost a stereotype but Morrow ensures this is no small-town idyll. Cass’s skills as a diviner are not remarkable; she is her father’s daughter, and dowsing skills are valued when water is at a premium. When, late on, Neptune tells Cass that he was a fraud, she is not surprised, having based her own work on careful research but one suspects that both have combined knowledge and instinct without ever questioning it. It is the acceptance of the validity of both ways of working that lies at the heart of this novel.
Cass also has precognition, among other things predicting the car crash that killed her brother, but has always kept quiet about this particular skill, understanding that it is not always so welcome. Things change when Cass finds the body of a young girl hanging from a tree while dowsing a client’s land. When she returns with the police, the body has vanished, and she is suspected of an over-active imagination. The police do discover a runaway girl who looks similar to Cass’s description but she is not satisfied with this explanation, not least because she also receives a series of mysterious threats referring to the discovery and the presence of the hanged girl remains. At the same time, the community withdraws from Cass, no longer sure of who or what she is. Cass’s choice lies in attempting to conform to her sense of what the community needs her to be or else in being true to herself and seeking an explanation of events, the key to which lies in events she has suppressed.
As fantasy novels go, this is low-key, to the point where some might wonder if the events aren’t simply the imaginings of a lonely woman. It is Cass’s own matter-of-fact account that convinces us that her experiences are genuine and must be addressed on their own terms. It is also true that Cass’s account of living with her powers is rather stronger than the other strand of plot, where speculation about a possible instigator far too quickly becomes certainty with very little actual evidence until much later on. In the end, I’m not sure it matters, because Cass’s growing acceptance of all her skills is what the novel is primarily about.
Bradford Morrow is the founder and editor of Conjunctions, the literary magazine which, several years ago, published the much-discussed The New Wave Fabulists, guest-edited by Peter Straub. A glance through his backlist indicates that Morrow has incorporated fantastic elements into earlier novels and suggests that its appearance in The Diviner’s Tale is not an outlier but part of a much broader pattern of use. His fiction will probably not be to the taste of those like their fantasy to have epic proportions but I think The Diviner’s Tale will appeal to those interested in the ways in which the fantastic weaves its way in and out of daily life. Certainly, this novel has impressed me sufficiently that I want to read his earlier work.