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Book Review – The Diviners by Margaret Lawrence


Hello Booktube and Youtube. I’m here today
to talk about the Diviners by Margaret Laurence. This book is almost
non-existent on Booktube, which I find to be a travesty considering I believe it
is probably my top read of 2018. Margaret Laurence was a Canadian writer, she died
in the late 80’s. This book was published in 1974. It is considered her masterpiece
and I would wholeheartedly agree with that. I have read one other of her
novels called A Jest of God. She wrote seven novels all together. And
this one was very controversial when it came out in 1974, it was actually
banned by people and the critics shot it down because of a lot of the subject
matter of it, which I will get into now. So, this book
is set in Manawaka Manitoba which is a fictional town. Manitoba, if you’re not
familiar with Canadian geography, is one of the more central provinces in Canada.
It has Ontario on the east and Saskatchewan on the west and this story
follows Morag Gunn, who is… it starts in the 1930’s when she’s growing up. She’s
orphaned at a young age and is raised by friends of the family. You follow her
story interspersed with the stories of her ancestors as told to her by the man
who’s raising her. So, you get his perspective on them coming to Canada and
how they settled here. You flashback essentially from her in present-day as
a middle-aged woman, who’s going through a bit of a crisis because her child has
grown up and is leaving home and so she’s redefining her identity, she’s
looking back on her life. And you follow along. You follow her as she comes of age
post-World War II, and so you get this perspective of also the 1950’s where
women were very much, you know, getting married, having children, and not really
aspiring to careers. But Morag does aspire to a
career. She wants to be a writer. And so if you love books about writers, if you
love books about books, definitely check this one out.
There’s a lot of references to the novels that she’s writing as she’s
writing them. There are also a lot of references to stories within stories, and
that the storyteller is the perspective that you hear, and is that true or not?
And can you even know if it’s true or not, and should it even matter if it’s
true or not. There is also a lot of contradictions in this novel, which I
love because I love complex characters. And Morag’s perspective as she grows
up is very fascinating to me. The way Margaret Laurence used her language to
show her immaturity moving into her maturity was very fascinating. She
also showed her love of the people who raised her, and also her disdain and
disgust for those people at the same time. And I thought that was really,
really brilliant because most people experience that with people we love. We
love them, we also get very annoyed with them. We are proud of them but we’re also
ashamed of them. There’s these feelings that go through you as a human
being and they’re not often articulated, you just kind of hide them and think oh,
you know, I’m a terrible person for thinking that about this person that I
love. But sometimes you do think those things and they’re very private thoughts.
And so, you really have the insight into Morag’s very private thoughts in this
book. One of the reviews that I read said that this book was feminist period. And
it definitely is, especially if you look at the
time period of Canadian culture in 1974. The second wave of feminism is going
through and this book is about a woman who’s very self possessed, she’s not
defined by men, she is very strong in her own
convictions and…. not always, she can also be quite vulnerable, and scared, and all
those other things that people are. But she is very self possessed, she is not
defined by the men around her. In the few times that she is defined by those men,
she moves through those feelings and comes out the other side. And I think
that shows a really brilliant type of character that you can root for and that
you can believe in and that you want to succeed when you see things like that in
novels. So Morag is an artist, she’s a writer, and she’s a mother – a single
mother to boot. And so, I think that was another thing
about this book that was very controversial in 1974 and that is that,
you know, women were supposed to be married. They were supposed to be raising
their children full-time and being at home and Morag Gunn, she does it her own
way. And it shows the struggles of that, it shows the struggles of being
both an artist and a mother, and how that is such a balancing act and often you
can’t balance it at all. There was a brilliant scene in the book where
Morag is at her day job where she works in the morning so that she can write in the
afternoon before her daughter comes home from school. And she gets a call from the
school that her daughter is sick and she goes and picks up her daughter and she
brings her home to take care of her. Now this is, you know, a very typical thing
for most mothers and parents to deal with but she has a novel in her head
that is ready to be written down. She’s been thinking about it for months, she’s
been waiting just to get it all formulated so that she can write it down
and get going, and get deep into there. You want a concentrated amount of
time as an artist to sit down and actually belt something out, and she
can’t do that. She has to take care of her daughter. And so, you hear her
frustration, you hear her lament that she’s like stuck in this limbo where she
can’t really get this out, and so you understand that it takes her much longer
to produce her work than it probably would if she didn’t have a child.
But that she loves her daughter, she wanted her daughter, and she, you know, has
made those sacrifices willingly to some degree but even though when you make
them willingly they’re also still often hard. I loved that. I don’t think there’s
been a book that I’ve read or a movie that I’ve seen that has depicted the
contradictions in that relationship of being an artist and a parent better
than this book has. It’s just brilliantly done. Also, the love relationships in this
book, they’re very complicated but Morag at heart is very self-possessed. And
she never tries to own the men in her life. And when she does she always stops
herself and moves on. So, I love that part as well, because very
unconventional relationships represented for the time, for 1974. I believe they
were unconventional relationships represented and that gives this novel
a very current feeling to me. The only way I knew that it was set in the late
70’s – or sorry that it was set in the 1930’s up until…. I would say it was –
yeah, the late 60’s that they were talking about here, was by the descriptions of
the real estate in Vancouver, where I live which is completely different now,
the lack of technology talked about. That’s it. I mean really the emotions
and feelings were so current in so many ways,
and amazingly done, amazingly rendered. There’s a lot of rawness to this book,
a lot of sex in this book. Oh, I wouldn’t say a lot actually. There is sex
in this book and the sex is very primal and basically done. There’s not
a lot of erotic undertones and there’s not romantic undertones to it. She
believes… she writes about sex in a very matter-of-fact way.
Like, describing these characters as complete, round human beings who like to
eat food and they also like to have sex and there’s not some sort of a moral
value system placed on that, which I thought was really great. And then
there’s also a lot of raw language because you’re talking about different
types of people, different classes of people, and they’re going to talk
differently in different types of dialects. And there’s also a really great
amount of representation of First Nations in this book.
Now, I will say Margaret Laurence was not – did not have any First Nations ancestry
and so she’s writing from very much a white, Presbyterian, settler – Scottish
settlers perspective, from Morag’s perspective. But Morag is very intimately connected
with a Metis man named Jules Tonnerre, his nickname was Skinner, and they met in
school and they grew up together essentially, and they go on to have an on-and-off relationship for many years. And so you see his perspective, his
family’s history, his mistreatment and the racism that is perpetrated onto
him and his family in the town because they are Metis. Metis means of
mixed-race. And so you’re talking about French
colonialists and First Nations peoples. And so, the history of Jules’ family, and
his settlement in the area, and their struggles, the Metis struggles
against the colonial powers, you know, years before in the history of
Manitoba is all represented here and I think very well represented for, you know,
1974 and a white woman writing about First Nations issues. And so, you know, own
voices are certainly the perspectives that we want to hear now but I feel like she
also represented being a mixed-race child. And so being
a mother who is of one race, and then your child being a mixed-race child,
and then trying to help them navigate a world when you can’t
possibly really understand what they’re going through when they face racism. So
just really beautifully rendered. This is a stunning novel. I will be going on to
read more of her novels. I already have The Stone Angel here, and like I said, I
read A Jest of God many years ago. I don’t think I’ll re-read A Jest of God, it
was also a bit shorter like The Stone Angel. I think I would just go on to read
the rest of her novels. I might reread The Diviners at some point in the future
just because it is exceptional and I could probably get more out of it in a
few years with a future read. This is actually a library copy but I do plan to
order a copy to keep on my bookshelves for myself. And the other book I have
about Margaret Laurence is The Life of Margaret Laurence by James King and I
did read this years ago after I read A Jest of God. I don’t really remember it
though. So, this was MacLean’s favorite book – one of their favorite books
of 1997. So it was published quite a long time ago and I really – yeah, I would like
to delve back into her life. I don’t remember much about reading this
book. I think at the time when I read it I was probably a bit too young to really
fully comprehend the maturity of her writing and of her life. So I would
definitely recommend this. I think more people on Booktube have to read this
book. It’s kind of blowing my mind that Margaret Laurence is not more of a name
that people bring up when they’re talking about Canadian literature. I
think part of the reason for that is that Margaret Atwood is so famous and
she is so prolific and still writing, and so, she’s just eclipsed perhaps
some of the other Canadian literature female writers. I believe Margaret Atwood
was quite inspired by Margaret Laurence’s style, that’s just me putting
in my own spin here, but having read Margaret Atwood’s first novel I really
feel like she was picking up what Margaret Laurence was putting down. She
certainly moved in a totally different direction in her future novels. So I
think that that’s probably where the crossover ended. You could say she
looked into covering more of the human relationship in her first five-ish novels and then really
took off in another direction after that. So, I know there is an edition of this
book that has an afterword written by Margaret Atwood which I kind of would
like to read because I would love to get her perspective on Margaret Laurence but I would say please give Margaret
Laurence a try and read this book. I mean if you want to start with her other ones –
she has seven other ones, so I can also recommend A Jest of God I do remember
enjoying that one. But The Diviners is a masterpiece. So it is worth reading. My
favorite book of 2018 so far. So thank you so much for listening and I hope to
be back soon. if you have read this book and are also
amazed that it’s not talked about more on YouTube please leave a comment below
or any comment you may have. I’m happy to chat to you about it and I will be back
soon with another video.

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