What a beautiful book is Brian Selznick’s new graphic novel The Marvels! The cover is gorgeous, all blue and gold. The edges of the pages are gold too. The book is big and fat and heavy. The paper inside is thick and glossy. None of that of course makes a good story but when the story is good, all of it certainly enhances the reading experience.
And what a reading experience it was! The first half of the book is nothing but pencil drawings. No text. But the drawings manage to tell the story of several generations of the Marvel family from how they began in the theatre, made it famous as actors, and then a tragedy the ending of which we do not get to know because the drawings stop and text without drawings begins.
The text tells a different story. Joseph Jervis was sent to boarding school by his parents at a young age. They travelled a lot and found their son difficult and thought boarding school in England would be the best thing for him. They ship him off and rarely bother to call or write to him (it’s 1990). Feeling neglected and lonely, Joseph finally makes a friend, Blink, and they plan to run away together to London where Joseph has an uncle he has never met. But Blink’s dad takes him out of school and Joseph has no idea where they have gone. So, having planned out running away to London already, Joseph gets up his courage and runs off from school at the Christmas break without telling anyone where he is going.
He shows up unannounced at his uncle’s house. Albert Nightingale is himself a lonely man but he prefers it that way. Or at least he has convinced himself he does. He is not pleased at Joseph’s disruptive appearance in the middle of the night in a freezing rain. If the boy wasn’t obviously feverish he would be tempted to leave him out on the street to make his own way as he could. But Albert takes him in. Between Christmas and New Year’s both their lives are changed for the better as Joseph refuses to accept Albert’s silence on their family history.
Are they related to the Marvels? If so, how? Uncle Albert is apparently living in their house, there are clues everywhere and Joseph, along with Frankie, short for Frances, who lives a few houses away, try to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
What we ultimately get is a wonderful story about stories, family, desire, friendship, grief and love. It is all packed in there and even though Selznick writes for a younger audience, he is very subtle on many points and doesn’t slap you in the face with them. For instance Uncle Albert is gay and his partner, Billy died a few years ago of AIDS. And Albert himself is currently being treated for AIDS. But this is not dwelled on except very briefly when Frankie asks Joseph whether he knows Albert is sick. But it doesn’t need to be made more explicit, all the clues are there for anyone paying attention. However, younger readers who know nothing about the AIDS epidemic will very likely miss this aspect of the story.
There is a refrain that runs throughout, Aut visum, but non, you either see it or you don’t. And that is how Selznick has written the book, you either see the clues and put the pieces together or you don’t. By the end it is all crystal clear and I found myself loving every character in the book and wanting a happy ending. But, like Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, which weaves its way throughout the story, endings are rarely completely happy or completely sad and often turn into beginnings.
After the text, we go back to just the pencil drawings again that pick up where they left off. This final section is short in relation to all that has come before, but the drawings speak more than words ever could.
Selznick based The Marvels on a real life house and some real life people whose story is as beautiful and touching as the one Selznick wrote. If you liked The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonder Struck, you are guaranteed to love The Marvels.