The Diviner’s Tale by Bradford Morrow

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Title: The Diviner’s Tale

Author: Bradford Morrow

Genre: Horror/Psychological/Thriller

Rating: ****

Review: 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.

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 who dun it may be disappointed.

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.

The first focal point of the tale is that Cassandra’s vision makes her even more suspect in the eyes of those who inhabit the small town where she lives and where, as a single mother and all-around oddball, she is something of an outcast already. Now she has to cope with more disdain. The second central concern is that her vision and the runaway girl turn out to be linked to traumatic events in Cassandra’s youth, which were never put to rest.

The book eventually resolves the mystery and, also, with a sure social intelligence, looks at how the Brooks family: Cassandra, her two boys and her parents, cope with assaults from without (such as town gossip) and within (Nep’s illness).

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?

Moreover, to step back a moment so as to discern a larger pattern, this book can be put in the tradition of writers, going from Fanzen’s recent Freedom back to Chute’s Merry Men, that examine the incursions of urban dwellers on the environment and culture of small town America. Within this conflict, Cassandra herself is in quite an ambiguous position in that her nearly lost art of divining, which depends on sensitive attunement to natural forces, is often employed (as in the first scene) by developers who are intent on finding water for new communities they are going to construct by paving over the pristine wilderness.

Chute describes the protests and sabotage mounted by the old-timey Maine residents as they try to forestall the developers while Franzen, who is less sympathetic to the displaced small town people, deals with those involved in the NGOs that are trying to preserve the rural landscape. Sadly if realistically, neither novelist sees the attempts to guard the small towns as successful.

Meanwhile, involved with these same themes, Morrow’s angle of approach is different. His attention is on how a family, and the community in which it is rooted, weathers the impositions that city dwellers (such as the father of Cassandra’s twin children, who seduces and abandons her) are placing on rural America. So, although Morrow’s subject matter is narrower than that of the other writers mentioned, he can (in all honesty) offer a more hopeful look that they can since, while wilderness is lost, families and communities can survive emotionally intact.

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 alldiluted 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.

In sum, in this engrossing and powerful novel, Morrow explores how a family holds together and deepens its bonds as it negotiates what is becoming in many ways (as in how it denigrates any kind of errant spirituality such as that found in divining) a cowardly new world.

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