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The Diviner's Tale Hardcover – January 20, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

An Otto Penzler Book

Walking a lonely forested valley on a spring morning in upstate New York, having been hired by a developer to dowse the land, Cassandra Brooks comes upon the shocking vision of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she returns with authorities to the site, the body has vanished, leaving in question Cassandra’s credibility if not her sanity. The next day, on a return visit with the sheriff to have another look, a dazed, mute missing girl emerges from the woods, alive and the very picture of Cassandra’s hanged girl.

What follows is the narrative of ever-deepening and increasingly bizarre divinations that will lead this gifted young woman, the struggling single mother of twin boys, hurtling toward a past she’d long since thought was behind her. The Diviner’s Tale is at once a journey of self-discovery and an unorthodox murder mystery, a tale of the fantastic and a family chronicle told by an otherwise ordinary woman.

When Cassandra’s dark forebodings take on tangible form, she is forced to confront a life spiraling out of control. And soon she is locked in a mortal chess match with a real-life killer who has haunted her since before she can remember.

Q&A with Bradford Morrow

Q: Do you consider yourself a diviner?

Morrow: I consider myself at best an amateur dowser. But I can say with certainty I no longer consider myself a doubter. Everyone is in his or her own way a diviner. And that's what the novel is in part about. Certainly being a writer demands that one engage in a form of divination, but that's true of so many creative activities in people's lives.

Q: The Diviner's Tale seamlessly brings together themes such as religion, philosophy, Greek mythology, baseball and bird-watching, and also creates a mash-up of literary fiction, mystery, and fantasy. How were you able to bring all those ideas and elements together so flawlessly?

Morrow: That's such a nice question I hate to ruin it with an answer. In fact, I've never really viewed the so-called genres of fantasy and mystery as being, by definition, distinct from the "literary." I've read any number of fantasy and mystery works I think of as highly literary. I'm keenly aware that one of the old cardinal rules of mystery is that it doesn't mix with the supernatural. P. D. James mentions this in her recent Talking About Detective Fiction: "All supernatural agencies are ruled out." But the world into which I was drawn with this book—Cassandra Brooks's world—defied such conventions, and so did I.

Q: Speaking of politics, The Diviner's Tale seems distinctly different from your other novels in that there's no overt political or historical dimension at its center.

Morrow: I think earlier novels like Giovanni's Gift and Trinity Fields examined the deeply political nature of family relationships. The Diviner's Tale is, in many ways, about what it's like to be a true outsider, gifted in ways the culture finds unacceptable or even bogus, trying to negotiate a path through the "real" world, the supposedly sane world. So the politics in this book are more familial and local. More about how some people considered freakish by society are often our most incandescent, brilliant members.

Q: Dowsing, or divining, is rich with metaphor. You play with ideas of the seen and the unseen, and with literary writing within the mystery. Are there hidden literary references in the book?

Morrow: You're right, divining is one of the richest metaphors I've ever worked with, even though much of the divination in the novel isn't metaphoric at all, but the real deal. I always love weaving hidden allusions in my novels. Beyond the obvious reference to the Cassandra myth, though, I think it's best to leave it to readers to do their own divining.

Bradford Morrow on What Inspired The Diviner's Tale

The Diviner's Tale arose from very humble circumstances. My farmhouse basement in rural New York always flooded when it rained even mildly for a day or two. An excavator friend suggested I hire a “water witch” to try to figure out what was going on underground. Skeptical, I agreed. So when Jimmy showed up with an older gentleman who matter of factly got a Y-rod out of his truck and began walking a zigzag across the yard above the house, I watched, expecting nothing. Skepticism turned to fascination, though, as I saw the tip of his rod jump downward with explosive quickness impossible to fake, and fascination turned to a kind of faith, when Jimmy's men excavated to the dowser's precise directions and found the stream where he said it would be. My flooding problem was soon resolved.

When I started writing the novel, a decade after this encounter, I realized I myself needed to learn the fundamentals of divining if I didn't want to make any serious errors in my portrayal of this complex, gentle, ineffable craft. As it happened, the American Society of Dowsers were holding their convention in Vermont that June, so I enrolled in basic dowsing school. Later, I felt a huge sense of relief when, on reading the galleys of The Diviner's Tale, my teacher, Marty Cain, one of the country's most prominent dowsers, wrote telling me I'd truly captured the craft and experience of divining.

My publisher, when designing the marvelous, haunting dust jacket, asked if I'd object if they put “A Mystery” on the cover instead of “A Novel.” Given that my editor, Otto Penzler, is probably the world's foremost editor of mystery fiction, I didn't think it an unfair request. But I felt, and feel, that The Diviner's Tale is more than a mystery, or at least very different from your conventional mystery novel, and decidedly not a whodunit. When nearing the end of the first draft, I toyed with the idea of Cass's nemesis being someone unexpected, someone other than who he had to be, but then realized such a move would be just that--a move, a trick, ultimately a betrayal of my narrator's quest. The mystery was there for Cassandra Brooks to resolve. What drove the book for me was the need to accompany her on her journey from crisis to illumination, whether that meant drawing on elements of suspense, fantasy, or the supernatural. As a reader, I myself gravitate toward fiction that is free of certain genre-driven restrictions. That The Diviner's Tale turned out to be a dark novel, owing much to the Gothic, didn't surprise me, as that seems to be one of my wellsprings. But that I was creating something of a genre mash-up didn't enter my mind. Rather, I tried as hard as I could to stay true to Cass and family, and her rural communities of Corinth County and Covey Island.

Novels, at least my novels, come less from witnessing or thinking something I feel I can explain, than things I can't. By writing The Diviner's Tale, I narrated my way as close as I could toward an understanding of what I saw that day when the dowser visited my house, and solved an everyday problem by means of a gift one doesn't often witness. He planted the seed of this book by simply going about his business. I've now come to think we're all diviners, finally, in our different ways. We only need to know how easy it is to look around unturned corners to see things up ahead that might otherwise go unnoticed.

From Publishers Weekly

Cassandra Brooks, who lives in rural upstate New York with her twin sons, ekes out a living substitute teaching and dowsing, or divining, in Morrow's solid gothic-infused tale of family secrets. As a child, Cassandra discovered she possessed the gift to divine water and have "forevisions" of the future, including one the night her beloved older brother, Christopher, was killed. While on a divining job for a new property development, Cassandra sees the body of a teenage girl hanging from a tree, but when she returns with the police, there's no trace of the body. Cassandra wonders what her vision means, especially after a runaway girl, Laura Bryant, surfaces and claims she was kidnapped. Even though the vision dredges up bittersweet memories of Christopher, Cassandra is determined to help Laura, who's in real danger. Morrow (Ariel's Crossing) beautifully evokes Cassandra's inner turmoil, but those expecting a conventional whodunit may be disappointed. (Jan.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (January 20, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547382634
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547382630
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,512,884 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bradford Morrow has lived for the past thirty years in New York City and rural upstate New York, though he grew up in Colorado and lived and worked in a variety of places in between. While in his mid-teens, he traveled through rural Honduras as a member of the Amigos de las Americas program, serving as a medical volunteer in the summer of 1967. The following year he was awarded an American Field Service scholarship to finish his last year of high school as a foreign exchange student at a Liceo Scientifico in Cuneo, Italy. In 1973, he took time off from studying at the University of Colorado to live in Paris for a year. After doing graduate work on a Danforth Fellowship at Yale University, he moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he worked as a rare book dealer until relocating to New York City in 1981, where he began editing the literary journal "Conjunctions" and writing novels.

Morrow's first five novels--"Come Sunday" (1988), "The Almanac Branch" (1992, PEN/Faulkner Award finalist), "Trinity Fields" (Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, 1995), "Giovanni's Gift" (1997) and "Ariel's Crossing" (2002)--are all available as e-books from Open Road Media. His sixth novel, "The Diviner's Tale" (2011), was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S. and in England with Corvus (Atlantic), as well as an audiobook with Blackstone. His first collection of short stories, "The Uninnocent," was published in 2011 by Pegasus Books, and a novella, "The Nature of MY Inheritance," was published earlier in 2014 by the Mysterious Bookshop. His most recent novel, "The Forgers," is just out with Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic. He is completing work on his seventh novel, "The Prague Sonata," as well as a book of creative nonfiction works, "Meditations on a Shadow."

In collaboration with eighteen artists, Morrow is the author of "A Bestiary," as well as a book for children, "Didn't Didn't Do It," illustrated by the legendary Gahan Wilson. Morrow has also edited and written a number of other books, including "Posthumes" (poetry), "The New Gothic" (with Patrick McGrath) and "The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth" (with Sam Hamill) and has contributed to many anthologies and journals. As founding editor of "Conjunctions," he has edited over 55 volumes of the journal from 1981 to the present. An anthology on death, "The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death," co-edited with David Shields, was published by W.W. Norton in 2011.

Morrow's many awards include an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes, as well as the PEN/Nora Magid Award. He has taught at Princeton, Columbia, and Brown Universities and for the past twenty years has been a Bard Center Fellow and professor of literature at Bard College.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Pickfordm on January 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I'm a huge fan of Bradford Morrow's and I've been waiting for this book, The Diviners Tale, for a long time. Not only is it worth the wait, it's one of the best contemporary novels I've read in years.

When the novel opens the narrator, Cassandra Brooks, describes her first "forevision," a premonition of her brother's death. It got me hooked right away and set up story lines which enrich the book throughout: Cassandra's strong yet complicated relationships with her family; the unique gifts that make her feel like an outsider; and the burdens that accompany her talent for divination (she foresees her brother's death but can't stop him from dying). Cassandra struggles to live a quiet life, raising twin sons as a single parent and forging bonds with her challenging mother and her ailing father, teaching, and "divining" -- a talent tied to her premonitory powers. Cassandra quickly became a character I adore, someone whose insecurities I can relate to as easily as I can to the capaciousness of her heart.

While divining (for water, a fascinating process Morrow describes so well) Cassandra sees a horrifying sight, a dead girl hanging from a tree in the woods. However, when she summons the police the girl has vanished without a trace. Did she imagine the whole thing? Was it the sign of a murder to come, or the residue of one that already happened? When a missing girl who resembles the dead girl (and reminds Cassandra of herself) is found, Cassandra is pulled even further into this frightening web. The tension builds slowly but masterfully; there are moments near the end that left me reading doubly fast because I couldn't bear to wait to find out what happened.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Phyllis S. from Brooklyn NY VINE VOICE on November 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In this novel, we meet the aptly named Cassandra. A devoted single mother, she has psychic gifts and works as a dowser or diviner, using a forked stick as a tool as she searches for things her clients are looking for, such as underground water. One day she finds something unexpected--a girl hanging from a tree, dead. But the girl disappears, and then seems to appear again--very much alive. Was Cassandra's vision a hallucination? Or a terrible premonition of a future event? Can she save the girl? Can she come to terms with her own inner demons, which have kept her from any kind of continuing romantic relationship? (These two questions turn out to be related.)

Much of the time, this novel was completely involving. In fact, I almost missed my subway stop reading it and could hardly put it down for two days. That is rare for me. What is even more rare is that this novel combines the kind of gorgeous writing one hopes to find in literary fiction with the suspenseful plot of an exciting mystery.

There is real feeling here--the protagonist's love and grief for the older brother whose life would have been saved if he only believed her psychic premonition of danger, her relationship with the father she is inexorably losing to Alzheimer's. We get a window into Cassandra's interior life and come to care about her. At times, this book is profoundly moving.

Is this a perfect novel? No. There were a couple of times when I had to willfully suspend my disbelief. Not about the psychic phenomena. I accepted that, and loved the classical references--the protagonist's name, her interest in ancient Greek and Roman literature. But when fictional characters do unlikely things for the sake of the plot I wince a little as a reader.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By B. Shulman on June 15, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There was so much fluff in this book that I sped-read through about half of it. The plot starts out very exciting. A woman who is a diviner, that is, she uses a stick to intuit where to find water in the ground, comes across a dead girl hanging in a tree. She fetches the police. When they come back, the girl is gone, and there is suspicion that the woman diviner made up the whole thing, or, more likely, hallucinated it, as she has a history of "forevisioning". So - that sounds exciting and it is. What's all this about? Chapter 1 holds so much promise.

But the book doesn't live up to its very exciting and intriguing premise. The reason why is that the characters are not fully fleshed out. I never once believed in the main character, a single mom with two kids who has a strong relationship with her parents. Her mom is religious, her dad, also a diviner, is not, and he has worsening Alzheimer's.

The dialogue between the diviner and her kids is so fake I just had to skip over most of it because it took away from any drama that was being created by the plotline. If you read the book and find the dialogue as hideously pretentious as I did (kids calling their mother 'dude') then please say so in your review.

I never once believed in the main character. The way she's written, she seemed more male than female. And the two boys just seemed as though made out of clay. Fake. This author is not very good at creating lifelike characters. They are stick figures and never ever come to life.

The plot, though, is very interesting, so I flipped through the dialogue to find out what happens next and I read all the way to the end to find out who/what was the dead girl we met at the beginning and what did she signify.
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