Brian Selznick is one of the great artists of our time. In what is now a trilogy (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck, and now The Marvels) he has created a unique storytelling style, one that blends illustration and text in an engrossingly original way. It is an aesthetic and emotive experience not like that of a graphic novel, but one closer to a cinematic viewing experience or a theatrical one; the three books are rich with scenes of powerful beauty created with paper, page turns, close-ups, and more. Upon completing The Marvels, I sat still, feeling as I did after a remarkable theatrical experience, say a dramatic opera, a visually stunning film, or a striking play, in awe of what I’d just experienced. Hours later it lingers with me, a gorgeous work of art.
The Marvels begins in the 18th century with images, hundreds of pages of them relating a mysterious story of a theatrical family over several generations. Ships and theaters, riggings and scenery, weather and atmosphere, adventure and drama, light and dark, youth and age, convention and strangeness — it is all there. Midway the images end and it is 1990 with a story now told exclusively in words. We meet Joseph who has run away from boarding school and is now in London desperately seeking out the one address he knows: 18 Folgate Street where his uncle lives, someone he knows nothing about and has never met. A fortunate encounter with a child his own age finally brings him to his relative who is not at all happy that he has come. There are mysteries galore — that of Joseph’s uncle’s remarkable house, of Joseph’s friend from school who has disappeared, of his and his uncle’s family, and of another one called the Marvels. By the end, the first two parts of the book are made whole in a brief, but powerful and brave conclusion, told again in drawings, set in the present day.
The book was inspired by a remarkable man, Dennis Severs, his house in London at 18 Folgate Street, and his friend David Milne. My own familiarity with their story, visit to the house a few years ago, and experiences during the period of the second part of the novel made my reading of The Marvels both aesthetically powerful and personally significant. As Joseph’s story and that of his uncle’s and his house began to unfold I started to recognize aspects of it and had a premonition as to where the story was going, causing me to remember others, artists I knew and cared for so much and whose lives were all too brief. And so I know that my reading was quite likely different from that of someone without my background, especially child readers.
Thank you, Brian, for The Marvels, for creating this work of art that remembers, looks behind and ahead, that celebrates the power of love, of art, of books, and the future with extraordinary art, grace, and elegance.
Also at the Huffington Post.