Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book Review 2020 #6 - Brian Selznick's The Marvels

The Marvels by Brian Selznick
Published by: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: September 15th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 640 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

In 1766 there were many hurricanes. Billy Marvel and his beloved dog are the sole survivors of the sinking of the Kraken which was hit by this force of nature. Billy even lost his beloved brother Marcus in the wreck. When Billy gets to London he is drawn to the construction site of the Royal Theatre and is mesmerized by the painting of the ceiling. There he is recognized as the sole survivor of the wreck, as his picture is on the cover of every newspaper, and he enthralls the crew with his tales of the hurricane and of his brother Marcus. The painter hired to do the ceiling is so moved by the tale he paints Marcus as an angel looking down over the audience. This serendipitous meeting is the beginning of the Marvel theatre dynasty. Billy works as a stagehand and set designer, and soon he has a son, and then there is a marriage. Down the generations until their dynasty ends in 1900. In 1990 Joseph Jervis has run away from school. His parents are abroad so he decides that he will go to his uncle's house in London. He has only the faintest notion of where Albert Nightingale lives, but cold and ill he arrives on his uncle's doorstep thinking that he might just have seen a horse and carriage. Inside the house is even odder. It feels trapped not just in another time, but at a specific time. A dinner is on the table, but a dinner that was interrupted. A napkin lays askew, and it must always lay askew. Albert reluctantly lets his nephew stay in the dream world he has created in this house in Spitalfields. But Joseph must behave. But Joseph is a curious child and from artifacts around the house he starts to learn about the Marvel theatre dynasty. The more he learns, the more he hopes that he is related to them. Yet what he knows of his own family's history doesn't add up with the Marvels. So in this house of make believe, Joseph must distinguish fact from fiction and then decide what is the better way to live?

It's hard to pick a favorite Brian Selznick book in that he is the master of his niche of storytelling. His style of art combined with his prose never fails to entertain, inspire, and uplift. Here though he's tweaked his winning style by having almost four hundred uninterrupted pages of illustration followed by two hundred pages of prose with a coda, another fifty pages of illustration. There was just something about this twist that made me fall even deeper into it than I did with The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck. The Marvels might just be my favorite Brian Selznick book yet! The four hundred pages of illustrations sped by as I was swept away by the history of the Marvel theatre dynasty. By the time you hit the prose section you're so invested in the story that I don't get those who felt the shift in style and tone betrayed them and made them dismiss the book out of hand. Thankfully I believe these to be a minority, because the twist to the story, the way art mimics reality and the artifice of theatre just made me love this book even more. In fact I was sorely compelled to re-read the first four hundred pages a second time after finishing the prose so I could come to terms with the awe I felt with how everything tied together so perfectly. But I was so overcome with tears streaming down my face that actually trying to read or look at a book would have been impossible due to the deluge of tears. What makes this book even more special I feel is that it's loosely based on a real location and person, Dennis Severs' House. One of my friends went to this museum that Dennis Severs created, a place where you can journey back in time with his staged "still-life drama." This is immersive history in the extreme. Oh how I want to go there. But reading this book is literally the next best thing and “you either see it, or you don’t.”


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