1766. A ship named the Kraken. A little girl tied to the mast, her face darkened by the shadow of a fearsome sea monster. It’s approaching, closer, closer, its teeth just inches from her face. But none of this is real.
Pan back to reveal an audience – and that’s when we realize that we, like them, are being treated to a performance. All this comes in the first few pages of Brian Selznick’s The Marvels and it sets the tone for everything after. Stories within stories, books inside plays, real life lived out on a theatre stage.
The Marvels is a novel of two halves. Part one consists of a 400-page collection of immersive black-and-white pencil drawings that tell the story of the Marvel family. From modest roots to fame and fortune, from lucky escapes to fiery ends. Part two is a short novel in itself, picking up in 1990 with young runaway Joseph Jervis absconding from boarding school in order to search out his enigmatic uncle, Mr A. Nightingale, and then discovering the history of the Marvel family for himself.
The illustrations of part one are a real pleasure and very manageable in one sitting. With every image realized on a two-page spread, there are layers and intimate details to get lost in. A range of pencil techniques capture the story’s varied landscapes, which switch from brooding oceans to tropical forests to cobblestoned alleyways. Selznick obviously doesn’t believe in white space. He doesn’t even believe in margins. Every page is decorated to its very edge and the print quality is top-class. It all may look freshly drawn, but don’t worry about wiping your fingers, there’s no risk of smudging here.
The Marvels’ story begins in classic adventure territory, then stands back and acknowledges its influences with pleasing allusions to Tintin, Robert Louis Stevenson and a healthy sprinkling of Shakespeare. When the story gets up to date in part two, however, it carries an emotional heft and grounds itself very much in the real world. This is a children’s book that is admirably progressive in its depictions of non-nuclear families – which is a bone of contention for some Amazon reviewers but gets a huge thumbs-up from me. Selznick’s Afterword is an interesting read in itself, citing his inspirations and adding a layer of non-fiction to this story about stories.
Full of reversals and inversions, The Marvels is a work that is playful, inventive and has a few good surprises up its sleeve. Like the preface says, You either see it or you don’t.
– Damien McLaughlin