The Diviner’s Tale

Reviewed By

Morrow’s supple prose is grounded in lyricism, prose unafraid to give the reader both the forest and the trees.

Bradford Morrow’s new novel, a feminist interpretation of fairy-tale tropes, explores the life of Cassandra: single-mother, teacher, dowser.

When you think of it, your past is like your shadow, and your shadow, whether it’s following you or running ahead, away from you, is, nevertheless, attached. Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale is as much an exploration of the interstices between fantasy and reality—that space where those two zones collide, no, overlap: the place Morrow describes as the “realm for which there were no logical words”—as it is a flashlight on one flawed but resilient woman’s road to independence. Morrow charts the ways in which that woman’s shadowy past, whether dragging from behind or nagging before her, must be addressed, while realizing that though the addressing may not result in triumph over the past, it may lead to a kind of reconciliation with it. The Diviner’s Tale seems like a response to Robert Graves’s admonition in “Sick Love” to “Walk between dark and dark—a shining space / With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.”

Narrated by Cassandra, single-mother, teacher, and dowser, the “first female in a lineage that extended unbroken back to the early nineteenth century,” The Diviner’s Tale might be thought of as a feminist interpolation of fairy tale tropes. Here we find a witch, a girl lost in the woods, and at least one monster, a kind of shade himself:

Then, almost imperceptibly, my problems started up again. The monster took to whispering in my ear. It’s voice sounded like fine-grained sandpaper rasping against stone. It seldom appeared in the form of a beast or being but came to me more like a mystifying cloud in my mind, a cloud of deep rich rose not unlike the color your hand acquires when you cup your palm to a flashlight in the dark…The monster had always been simple and swift as a thought, the merest suggestion or outward trace of a thought. When I was in a period of—what to call it?—remission, I could easily keep these phantom thoughts to myself. But that wasn’t always the case.

It’s easy to surrender to Morrow’s imaginative rendering of Cassandra’s story, to connect with her assorted fears, with the beauty and terrors of the wildernesses she both inhabits and escapes; easy, too, to fall under the spell of his bright, light, and pellucid prose. Morrow’s language is full of evocative descriptions, well-wrought wordplay, and lyrical turns of phrase: “The next day low clouds moved hastily between the ocean and overcast sky like random thoughts under a proven theory”; “Your common sense, Cass, I warned myself, has flown the coop. Then, like that, his coupe appeared in the drive…”;  and “What a ceaselessly spinning spider is memory.” Yes, the spirit of Mnemosyne, as do the gods of sleep and death, hovers in this story. Other references to antiquity abound: Daedalus, Paris, Helen of Troy, and the oracle of Delphi. Two of Cassandra’s cats are named, respectively, Homer, the epic poet, and Sybil, an oracular seer.

Just like her namesake in Greek mythology, Cassandra suffers from “forevisions,” omens of future events; and she’s also seemingly cursed with her own chorus of disbelievers. Ever wise, Cassandra reflects on faith and doubt throughout the story: “Our planet was roiled by believers who despised other believers who didn’t believe what they believed. It was so apocalyptically palpable one could feel the world quivering at the frustration of it all.” Unlike that beauty of antiquity, however, Cassandra doesn’t quite understand the language of animals, but she does have an “affinity” with birds.

Winged things fly around in Morrow’s novel, punctuating scenes with their noise, like the “riotous” warblers “carrying on like some piccolo orchestra gone joyously mad,” or the “murder of crows [crying] like a nursery full of squalling babies.” The “dialogue” of the birds is “clamorous” on one morning; and in “clarion voice…as if nothing in the world would force them to silence.” The birds’ presence is so ubiquitous in Morrow’s novel that when Cassandra discovers a spot in the woods where they are “voiceless,” she muses: “Birds always were to my mind the very freest of all creatures. Why they avoided singing in a landscape so naturally suited to them was beyond me. As if their silence were condemnatory.” Morrow’s supple prose is grounded in lyricism, prose unafraid to give the reader both the forest and the trees.

Among the “cliff hemlocks [giving] way to hundred-year-old cherries, towering beech, and black walnut” you’ll find in the story, you’re also likely to find hawthorns, but what you’ll also find is the spirit of Hawthorne, that is, an unobtrusive threading of Transcendentalist themes within the narrative. References to Dickinson and Emerson also appear; and, at one point, Morrow, in an inspired moment, verbs “Thoreau”: “I found myself exploring bonier, harsher, uninhabited land for people from the city looking to relocate, to Thoreau for themselves a haven upstate.” And you can’t help but think of Walden Pond’s verdant environs while reading The Diviner’s Tale:

Soon enough a misty rain blew down across the hills. The forsythias along the roadside, their many branches festooned with gaudy, cheerful flowers, sparkled with the fresh droplets and nodded up and down and side to side in the freshening gusts, as if offering a host of conflicting opinions.

There are so many things to talk about in this novel: the oscillation between Cassandra’s visions and her father’s fugue states, the way intimations and deductions are mitigated by doubt and fear, the way divining is used as an extended metaphor for the imagination, for creativity and discovery, the meditations on belief and disbelief, and the investigation of how naming might be a means of puncturing the “veil of perception,” that barrier preventing first-hand knowledge of the world. The Diviner’s Tale is a wonder-filled story, brimming with subtle intertextual references, where the narrator reflects: “All we had ever been were stories, and saying ourselves, unveiling our stories, was the best, the only, chance at divining ourselves.” If the stories we tell ourselves are vehicles toward self-discovery, then perhaps the stories told to us, especially lucently rendered stories, like The Diviner’s Tale, might just be a medium for discovery of the other.

John Madera is published widely, and his work has recently appeared in Conjunctions, The Believer, Opium Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. More from this author →