A man would ruin this …

“The woman I loved was rushed into the arms of grace this morning, sometime close to dawn.”

— opening sentence of Divining Women, by Kaye Gibbons

It’s 1918. Death seems everywhere. The Great War continues to rage in Europe. The flu epidemic that will kill millions worldwide is beginning its rampage. Expectant mothers won’t buy baby things until the child has survived at least three months.

And so recent Barnard graduate Mary Oliver treasures the safe oasis provided by her joyous, eccentric family, whose “divining women” listen to the counsel of “cards, fate boards, tea leaves and ghosts.” Her mother, sensing an uncanny similarity between her daughter and her half-brother’s wife, Maureen, sends Mary from the family home in Washington, D.C., to North Carolina to assist Maureen in her first pregnancy.

There, in small-town Elm City, Mary is horrified to discover that Maureen has become a de-spirited victim of insidious spousal abuse. Her husband claims she has “female hysteria,” the catchall condemnation of the time for women who wanted to think for themselves. (He has already forced Maureen to undergo electroshock therapy, and now he demands that her “offending female organs” be removed after her child is born.)

Being Kaye Gibbons heroines, however, the two women tap the wells of power inherent in them. Loving one another, they emerge triumphant.

Although both the era and characters in Divining Women (Simon & Schuster, 2004) mark departures from Gibbons’ previous novels, still in place is her characteristic magical cadence. Like mythological sirens, her words pull you out of your comfort zone, down and around in a spiral of insights so intense you have to close the covers of the book every now and then just to come up for air.

“I write to rhythm,” Gibbons explained in a recent interview, “and that rhythm is from having read the King James Bible while growing up in eastern North Carolina. I read poetry a lot, especially Emily Dickinson, and when I was writing this book, I kept hearing iambic tetrameter.

“And I was listening to Eminem,” she goes on to admit. “I had discounted rap as being trivial, and then I listened to him singing about his mother [in his 2002 hit single ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’]. He’s an American Shakespeare! The greatest musical writer since Bob Dylan.”

Gibbons notes that Ellen Foster, her first and most famous novel, is about her father; she and Eminem, she adds, “use our own voices to talk about some pretty intense subject matter.”

The book’s acknowledgements page is long list of well-known writers and filmmakers, many of whom, Gibbons confesses with a hearty laugh, “I borrowed money from!

“I was divorced two-and-a-half years ago [from husband No. 2],” she reveals. “I didn’t get a stick — not even a stick!

“They were people,” she continues in a now-I’m-serious tone, “who were helping hands along the way. I can look at each name and remember something valuable that each told me. Like Oscar Hijuelos, who said, ‘Do only what’s necessary to get through the day.’

“The decisions the characters make in Divining Women reflect decisions I was making in my own life at the time. I rewrote the book after 9/11. I realized I had to stop waiting for my life to ‘improve,’ and start being in the ‘right now.’ After 9/11, I felt like I didn’t want to beat around the bush to get at the heart of things — it was important to me to tell big, dire emotional truths.”

Divining Women is dedicated to Gibbons’ three daughters — Mary, Leslie and Louise (ages 15, 16 and almost 20, respectively). The prolific author credits her changed domestic situation for her voluminous recent output — now 44, she’s begun work on her ninth novel and recently completed a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

But her kids have nothing to do with that.

“Not having a man in your house,” she notes, “will open a lot of time. Sometimes it will be 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ll have a cigarette and Diet Coke and my laptop, and I say, ‘A man would ruin this.'”

Three years ago, recalls Gibbons, “I took my daughter to the Vermeer show in New York. … I love looking at Vermeer’s paintings, seeing the layers in his work. He represents what I write about — an ordinary woman who’s extraordinary doing ordinary things.

“[Mary] stood staring at the painting of the girl at the window holding the necklace, and got tears in her eyes. ‘Mama,’ she said, ‘these are your ladies.’

“But then Jack Nicholson walked through, and our tender moment was over!”

[Freelance writer Marcianne Miller is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]

Kaye Gibbons will read from Divining Women at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 16. Free.

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