My Rating: 4.5/5 TARDISes
Date Published: September 15th, 2015
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Pages: 665 pages
Synopsis: Two seemingly unrelated stories–one in words, the other in pictures–come together. The illustrated story begins in 1766 with Billy Marvel, the lone survivor of a shipwreck, and charts the adventures of his family of actors over five generations. The prose story opens in 1990 and follows Joseph, who has run away from school to an estranged uncle’s puzzling house in London, where he, along with the reader, must piece together many mysteries.
This is a spoiler-free review.
The Marvels was an absolutely beautiful gem of a novel that ended up taking me completely by surprise in all the best ways. An intriguing, thought-provoking, and magical tale full of unexpected twists and turns, it captivated me from page one. I am a massive fan of Brian Selznick’s work and have read both of his other novels, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. His stories, and the way he tells them with alternating pictures and text, are incredibly unique and gorgeous pieces of art. And though I utterly adored both of the others, The Marvels has surpassed them all.
The format of this novel was quite different from the previous ones. The others had alternating drawings and text, where the drawings either continued where the text left off or told a story in themselves that intertwined with the written story by the end. In The Marvels, Selznick tells two separate stories that take place multiple centuries apart. He begins with nearly four hundred pages of drawings telling one story, followed by two hundred pages of text telling the other. Though this strayed from his usual layout, it served to make the novel even more powerful as a whole.
I was worried at first about the picture aspect of it not being interspersed with text, feeling like it might end up being a bit confusing. However, this was not at all the case, and it was as equally coherent and as emotionally powerful an experience as the actual text itself. There is something very cinematic about that portion, very much like watching a silent film, which tied in brilliantly with the focus on acting and literature in the plot.
This novel is packed with a well-portrayed and memorable cast of characters, all of who are very easy to connect with and feel for. In just a short amount of time, I felt that I had become very attached to them, and was eager to find out how things turned out. This is also a very intelligent read, filled with references to theater and great works of literature, primarily works by Shakespeare and Yeats. A major theme of this novel is how life inspires art, and how art can make aspects of life a bit clearer to us all.
The visual portion of the novel tells the story of a family of actors growing up in the theater and on stage between 1766 and 1900. The text portion begins in 1990, and tells of a young boy named Joseph Jervis, a lover of fiction who is searching for his own real life adventure. Joseph runs away from boarding school to London in order to visit his uncle, Albert Nightingale whom he has never met, and request his help in locating his best friend. When he arrives, he is transported back in time by stepping into the house of a man who lives as if he is from the 1800s. The adventure begins, as Joseph attempts to piece together his family history and see why his uncle is living in such a way.
Going in, I did not know very much at all about this story aside from the relatively vague synopsis provided, and this turned out to be the absolute best way to read it. I was incredibly surprised by the twists and revelations in the plot, and that kept me on the edge of my seat, intrigued to find out the answers to the many mysteries.
This is not a good vs. evil story, not a story with any sort of antagonist. It is a story of people finding their place in the world, writing the story of their own lives and their own futures. It is about love, acceptance, and learning to be patient, with others and with life itself. Most importantly, it is about seeing; looking deeper into a world, fictional or factual, and perceiving that which matters the most.
Selznick sends the reader on a journey of their own, opening a door into the past and inspiring them to take each new fact they learn and explore what they see to decipher the mystery of how the two narratives relate to each other. All of his novels have a winning combination of stunning artwork and skillful writing. He is a magnificent storyteller through both words and images. The drawings allowed me to become fully submersed in the story and the world right from the start. I felt completely transported back in time, and his spot on descriptions of Albert Nightingale’s house made me occasionally forget that we were in the 1990s and not actually the late 1800s.
The pairing of these two mediums, as well as how he weaved the two tales together, made for a thoroughly rich and memorable experience. The story itself and the distinctive way that it is told makes this novel unlike anything I have ever read before. Through his novels, he has created a style that fully immerses the reader in the lives of his characters, and this fresh take on his usual format makes that experience all the more vivid. It was a stunning and breathtaking work, one that fits its title well. This was a truly wonderful journey.
“Aus Visum Aut Non. You either see it or you don’t.”