The masterful children’s author presents an artful, surprising, and bittersweet puzzle in words and pictures.
Caldecott Medalist Brian Selznick has been creating acclaimed illustrated novels for years now, and his latest takes his groundbreaking narrative format to new heights. Whereas The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and Wonderstruck (2011) wove together alternating illustrations and prose, The Marvels opens with a nearly 400-page wordless illustrated story before moving on to words.
With his signature close-up, crosshatched pencil drawings and cinematic visual pacing, Selznick opens on a ship at sea, the Kraken, with a young girl tied to the mast and threatened by a vicious monster. Just in the nick of time, an angel appears, ready to save her, but a page turn later, Selznick reveals that the whole scene is a play performed on the ship. Real disaster strikes, however, when a sudden storm tosses the ship, and it sinks into the waves. The girl and the angel—really two brothers, Billy and Marcus—are the sole survivors, along with Billy’s dog, Tar, but Marcus dies on the desert island they’ve washed up on.
Thankfully, Billy is rescued, and after arriving in London, he finds a home among the backstage rigging crew at the Royal Theater. From there, Selznick traces generations of the Marvel family, who all work in the theater in one capacity or another. The final Marvel, Leontes, is a terrible actor and a huge disappointment to his father, so he decides to run away to sea, but just as he’s about to depart, he finds the theater engulfed in flames.
It’s there that the Marvel family saga abruptly ends, and after a few starkly blank pages, the story switches to prose and skips ahead to London in 1990, where Selznick introduces Joseph Jervis, a 13-year-old on the run from his boarding school in England and searching for his estranged uncle, Albert Nightingale. Once he finally finds his uncle’s house, he discovers something truly strange: Albert lives in a veritable time capsule. Nineteenth-century furnishings, candlelit chandeliers, ornate paintings of ships, and lush upholstery fill each room. Even stranger, Albert keeps each room in careful disarray, as if a group of people has just left, cleaning and dusting but swapping day-old, half-eaten food and cups of tea with fresh replacements.
Albert’s cagey reluctance to answer only solidifies the boy’s belief
that there’s a magnificent (or dreadful) family secret at play.
Curious Joseph can’t help but explore, much to the frustration of his grumpy, reserved uncle, and he starts to notice odd things. Pictures of a ship called the Kraken appear all over the house. A picture of a young boy named Leontes—with red hair, just like his own—is laid out reverentially on a sideboard. Joseph asks his uncle many questions, but Albert’s cagey reluctance to answer only solidifies the boy’s belief that there’s a magnificent (or dreadful) family secret at play. Thanks to the threads of the illustrated tale that are woven throughout the prose story, readers will almost certainly be as convinced as Joseph that there’s hidden family history to be discovered.
But the reality is both more prosaic and more magical. Just as Selznick’s detailed and artfully deliberate illustrations gradually build a moving narrative, so, too, do his carefully wrought words. In unembellished and evocative prose, he slowly shares clues and masterfully misdirects readers’ attentions. After Albert reveals the truth, certain slightly odd details from the illustrations, particularly the leitmotifs that link each generation of the Marvels, suddenly take on new significance, and the facts Joseph thinks he has figured out crisply shift into something far more resonant than just a swashbuckling family history.
Joseph, who is gently evaluating his sexuality and feeling very different, hopes to find some answers about himself in the secrets Albert is keeping. Meanwhile, lonely, heartbroken Albert, who is facing the troubling reality of being gay in the 1990s, resists attachment of almost every kind. What starts as a quest for a juicy, adventurous legacy sidesteps into an enveloping discovery of home for both Joseph and Albert, neither of whom realized he needed to find one, particularly one as unusual as Albert’s. Selznick’s warm, affecting family tale is bittersweet, astonishing, and truly marvelous.
This review first appeared in the July 2015, issue of Booklist.