The Diviners review

I ask that question because it’s been so long since I first read this, Margaret Laurence’s fifth and final novel, that I came to it this week with almost no memory of the narrative. I remembered Morag Gunn, the heroine, and I remembered Pique, her daughter, who at 18 was so much closer to my age at the time. I knew there was tension between them – and I think I sided with Pique. Why wouldn’t I? She played the guitar, which I tried to do, she sang, and she was angry at the world.

If asked, I wouldn’t have suggested The Diviners as the Laurence book to be included in the list of 1001 Books. For me it was, and likely always will be The Stone Angel. Or A Jest of God, the book that was made into a movie, Rachel, Rachel. Joanne Woodward played Rachel and her husband Paul Newman directed it. Besides Woodward’s stunning performance as a lonely, repressed schoolteacher, the film was notable (notorious?) for the scene where Rachel masturbates alone in bed. Not the kind of thing that would shock now, but this was 1968 – it was powerful.

But I am not currently the arbiter of literary taste and never will be. So I borrowed a library copy of The Diviners, which turned out to be in large print – easier on the eyes but 730 pages. Whew! It tells the tale of a 40-something writer who has raised her daughter on her own, by her own choice. Pique’s father is Jules Tonnerre, son of Lazarus Tonnerre, whose ancestors date back to the Metis rebellion of 1885. Morag has her own history, which is Scottish and entwined with the Highland clearances. The book relates these stories of the past concurrently with those of Morag, her daughter, Christie Logan, her nominative father, and the assorted characters who befriend and sustain her.

I loved the ancestral stories but found myself less engaged with Pique the moody teenager who has to “find herself”.  Still, when you consider that the whole book is about the search for identity, it makes sense that Pique would need to go looking for her roots. As for Morag, she embodies the conflict experienced by those who grow up determined to get away from the suffocating confines of their small towns but are constantly aching to return. I hear you, Morag – you are not alone.

There’s a lot of fucking in the story, which isn’t a bad thing, but sex is always hard to write. In Laurence’s case much of it comes across as purple prose. Sometimes I think the old way of just alluding to it and then moving on to “In the morning they sat drinking coffee” is better. But then, I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to writing about sex. I usually prefer to turn off the lights and leave it to the reader’s imagination.

What I didn’t grasp, the first time I read the book, was the sorrow embedded in these pages. I’m 20 years older now than Morag … 20 years older than Laurence herself at the time. The book brought me to tears; I don’t remember crying the first time I read it. All those good-byes, all those life changes that shake and rattle us and leave us, ultimately, older but not necessarily wiser. As Laurence puts it so eloquently, “the infinite capacity of humans to wound one another without meaning or wanting to”.

Did Laurence know at the time she was writing that this would be her final book? She must have thought she would write other novels – she lived for another 13 years, after all. But I do think she planned this as the last in her series of books about Manawaka, the fictional Manitoba town based on Neepawa, where she was born and raised. She, like Morag, was in her mid-40s when she wrote it … an age where you sometimes feel older than you are. I think she was done with Neepawa – excuse me, Manawaka. She was wrong, of course, and she knew it. It’s not that you can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe wrote – it’s that you can never really leave.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to check out my 2004 mystery novel, Displaced Persons:

On a stormy night in 1977 the beautiful and troubled Tina Van BurenDisplaced Persons book cover dies violently in what is ruled a suicide. Many years later, still haunted by the ghost of her friend, Alex Cooper goes back to her roots in Northern Ontario to piece together the events of Tina’s life and death.

At a time when her children are living on their own, and she is temporarily estranged from her husband, Alex re-examines her life along with Tina’s as she once again becomes part of the town that had known them both, 20 years before.

Based on true events, Displaced Persons is a woman’s search for truth that leads us on an age-old search for belonging, in a family, in a town, and in a way of life.

“Margie Taylor weaves a savvy and seductive tale of sex, drugs, and sudden death on the shores of the greatest of our Great Lakes. A ‘Superior’ read, indeed.” – Arthur Black

“Here is a novel haunted by the certainty of the past, just as its characters are rooted in the uncertainty of the present. Margie Taylor is a wonderful writer.” – Joe Fiorito