Brian Selznick, The Marvels, Scholastic Australia, Oct 2015, 672pp., $34.99 (hbk), ISBN: 9780545448680
Genius – pure, creative, complex, intriguing genius.
From the moment of taking The Marvels in hand, the weight of impending mystery and awe was palpable. Gold-edged pages and a cover design reminiscent of old-world fairground posters begin to set the mood for the adventure cocooned within. Anticipation becomes further heightened upon realisation that the first 400 pages of the story are told purely in drawn images; beautifully crafted, detailed and engaging illustrations that not only hook you into the story, but generate wonder by the pure volume and quality of the drawings themselves.
Image by image, page by page unfolds the story of the Marvels, a family of theatrical performers born from the lone-survivor of an 18th century shipwreck. Strong family threads – great acting talents, red hair, and first-born sons as heir to the theatre throne, tie each new Marvel to the previous generation. Names and familial connections unfold quickly and the sense of trying to place names and personalities accurately over time, and grasp the importance of each, sets the reader’s mind perfectly for what is about to come.
The story of young Joseph, a misfit in his affluent 20th century life and his decidedly odd Uncle Albert develops in the traditional wordy way of most stories. To discover a story within the story and yet another as the basis for the book (as told in the afterword) seems a triple gift to the honoured reader, and a writing feat of magnificence from the author. To label this story a mystery is a massive generalisation and yet, for young Joseph and his new friend Frankie, desire to unravel the puzzling reasons behind Uncle Albert’s eccentric and precise ways is the driving force of the narrative. To reveal the plot twists and resolution would be to steal a moment of magic – and is not the place of this review.
Through themes of belonging, creativity and self-expression Selznick summons the reader to reflect on their own place in their personal, familial history. By association, we are invited to ponder the stories we conjure in lieu of an idealistic life and imagine the setting if we too were to preserve life as though time stood still. We ask: How do we honour loved ones? What does life look like if we cannot forgive ourselves? How do we define family? Cleverly and very subtly interwoven throughout are also the acceptance and understanding of social issues such as HIV, ‘students’ for whom traditional schooling doesn’t fit, the development of migrant communities and gay families and adoption. There is no preaching or overt expression on these subjects, and a younger reader may well bypass them as a trivial detail in the grand scheme. It is indeed a complex web, masterfully woven.
Though the construction of visual and stated stories is complex and spans many generations, the vocabulary is accessible for younger readers and the themes are relevant and thought-provoking. The text is written from the perspective of young Joseph and frequently harnesses a childish sense of imagination and adventure.
In my house, my 3 year old loves to read and retell the pictures and my 10 year old and I have been equally but differently transfixed by the story. This book will remain a personal treasure forever and I cannot recommend it highly enough for readers of any age.
Reviewed by Katie Bingham