A review by Nalini Haynes
The Marvels is a beautiful hardcover novel, the height and width of a fairly normal hardcover but very thick. It’s bound in royal blue with gold embossing, the same colors used for an elaborate front on the dust jacket. The spine and back of the dust jacket is a grey scale drawing of a boy wearing aviator glasses. The endpages (the pages just inside the cover) are royal blue pencil drawings. All pages are slightly thicker than you’d usually expect, even with the gilt trim.
The story begins like Shaun Tan’s The Traveller, with a tale told (mostly) without words, using grey-scale pencil drawings instead. An elaborate story of generations of a family is told simply and swiftly in images before the text begins.
Joseph Jervis runs away from an expensive private school after his best friend, Blink, leaves. Joseph and Blink had planned to run away to Joseph’s uncle’s house although Joseph had never met his uncle. After Blink leaves, Joseph follows through on their plan, eventually arriving at Alfred Nightingale’s house to find an apparently haunted beautiful 19th century home. Joseph begs Alfred to let him stay.
Joseph’s character develops, facing real challenges while trying to solve the mystery of the house. He meets characters inhabiting Spitalfields in a time between the area being a notorious slum and it becoming gentrified.
The story concludes with a return to pencil drawings prior to the acknowledgements that are required reading. The acknowledgements reveal the relationship of the novel to historical fact — Dennis Severs’s life, relationships and the historical home he rebuilt — making The Marvels all the more interesting and powerful.
My only reservation about The Marvels is that a character has a sudden change of heart at a key point without apparent justification for such a reversal; this won’t affect younger readers but may cause a small stumble for older readers.
Homosexuality and AIDS are part of The Marvels, a story told with such sensitivity that I do not hesitate to recommend this story to primary school ages and up. Alfred mourns his Beloved, a man who died of an unnamed illness after attending a particular clinic. Alfred now attends the same clinic. Although AIDS is not mentioned, the clinic really exists and is an AIDS-specialist health service. Children can expect to live through deaths of family members and pets, particularly the more elderly. The Marvels sensitively introduces the idea of the loss of loved ones, grief and recovery without delving into the specifics of why the characters died.
The Marvels is about family history, community relationships, the power of history, the power of stories, telling the difference between fact and fiction — in essence, this is a story that every child should read and many adults will enjoy because it presents a mystery that unfolds to reveal so much about life. Highly recommended.
Although I had that one concern about The Marvels, I think it’s eminently suitable for the age group for which it is intended (and well beyond that age group), so I’m giving it 5 stars. I also recommend visiting The Marvels website.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
ISBN 13: 978-0-54-544868-0
Format: Hardcover, 640 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Inc