Cassandra Brooks is a water-diviner dowsing for a property developer in the dense woodlands of North-East America when she sees the body of a teenage girl in a white dress hanging from a tree. When she returns with the police, the body has vanished – until another young girl, pale and traumatised, turns up nearby. Is our narrator haunted, psychic or going insane?
For all its shared creepiness, dark tone and note of near-hysteria, the gothic novel as interpreted by English and American writers are two very different beasts. The English version, as descended from Horace Walpole, satirised by Jane Austen, and domesticated by Maggie O'Farrell, tends to revolve around a house or a family. The American, as suggested by Nathaniel Hawthorne, extended by Stephen King and vamped by Stephenie Meyer, is usually about a small community encircled by deep dark woods. Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale is, as you might expect of a distinguished American man of letters, very much of the latter camp. But its style and intelligence makes it a cut above genre fiction.
Cassandra is the last of a line of water-diviners, and although she ascribes her success to her careful researches, it becomes clear that this quasi-magical ability is not only genuine but matched by an uncomfortable ability to see the dead. Her life has been blighted by the violent demise of her adored elder brother, Christopher. As the single mother of twin seven-year-old boys in a conservative community she is in danger of being thought not only mad but, as her father is the first to call her, "a witch".
Cassandra is resilient, private, resourceful and as uncomfortable a heroine as her name suggests. She doesn't understand or trust the instinct that lets her know not only where water is present and at what depth, but, like her instinct for danger, it proves unerring. "Serendipity had brought me certain proof," as she puts it.
Water-divining is a good metaphor for detecting subterranean currents of all kinds. Part of the mesmerising quality of Morrow's novel is that, through Cass, we explore not only a web of relationships but the impulses and memories which, inevitably, lead back to real murders. Her relationship with Niles, a former boyfriend and policeman, her father, her sons, the father of her sons and the people who employ her as a geography teacher or as a water diviner gradually open up a strange history. The beauty of the wilderness which, ironically, she is helping to destroy is beautifully conveyed, and as the plot ratchets up another degree of tension, Cass is forced to use her own childhood memories to understand what has drawn the traumatised runaway girl into the web of a serial killer. There is a romance element thrown in unexpectedly at the end which feels far too neat, and Cass experiences none of the frustrations that real single parents (and working mothers in general) battle against. These parts of the novel are less than convincing. Yet as a portrait of a person who doesn't fit, Morrow's novel is very much in the chilling, deeply-felt vein of Hawthorne. Cass's divining is, according to her father, "one of the great chances a mere mortal has to reach out and touch the sacred." If it also means she gets entangled in evil – well, that is part of American Gothic, and the American nightmare.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is 'Hearts and Minds' (Abacus)