Book Review: The Marvels, by Brian Selznick

Available in bookshops nationwide.

I pp_Marvels_StandingShothave been an avid fan of Selznick since first getting my hands on The Invention of Hugo
. His combination of beautiful pencil crosshatch drawings and the written word is spellbinding. The Marvels tells a tale of a dragon and an angel, a shipwreck, a fire, and a family of actors who become entwined with the history of the Royal Theatre in London. The production levels on the book are extremely high – the gold edges are flawless, and the cover is incredible.

The first two-thirds of the book is told entirely in illustration, beginning in 1766 with the story of Billy Marvel, who with his brother Marcus and their dog Tar, survives the shipwreck of The Kraken during a fierce storm. Marcus dies and Billy buries him on the island at which they come ashore. After the fire Billy built for warmth catches the islands’ trees alight, he is rescued and taken to London. There he finds himself drawn to the Royal Theatre, working back-of-stage with the ropes and pullies, very similar to those used on a ship.

One evening, he hears a noise in the alley behind the theatre, and finds a baby with a note “Please someone raise my baby to be a good man in a bad world.” He names him Marcus, for his brother, and Marcus goes on to found four more generations of actors. The movement of time is handled via newspaper clippings, theatre signs and notations on official documents. The illustration is fluid and done from various perspectives – eye of god and first-person – which makes for an entrancing story.

As we near the end of the illustrated story, there is a great fire, from which we are uncertain of the characters’ survival, then we jump forward to 1990. Joseph has just run away from his exclusive boys’ school, and is lost in London, looking for his Uncle Nightingale’s house. He has never met his Uncle, and he has no idea of the reception he is in for when he finally, with the help of Frankie, who is out chasing her dog – or she wants it to be her dog.

Albert Nightingale turns out to be less than encouraging when Joseph asks to be allowed to stay. His house is set out in a very precise manner, and he wishes for it to stay that way – he doesn’t think that Joseph could understand why, and red-haired Joseph begins to piece together clues to figure out what Albert is hiding: based on some of the old portraits, he thinks this may be the history of his own family.

The written story is just as fascinating as the illustrated one, giving a sense of the immense history of London. One of Albert’s pastimes is mudlarking, and as he and Joseph draw closer he says while looking at fragments from the Thames, “I’ll guarantee you this, every fragment you see here, every scrap, once held a story.” This is apt, because this book is, more than anything, about how important stories are to humanity: how powerful they can be, if created carefully.

There is joy and sorrow in this book, pride and secrecy too. There are many life truths. It reminded me of From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle a little in the way it lifted up story to its pinnacle. Near the end of the book, Joseph is thinking about Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and he thinks about the mother being saved while the prince isn’t, and thinks “That’s what life is … miracles and sadness, side by side.”

I will be astounded if this book doesn’t garner awards – it deserves them. Buy it if you love uniquely brilliant storytelling.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Marvels
by Brian Selznick
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9780545448680