Review of The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Feiwel and Friends, 2010
By REBECCA, March 12, 2012
Jack Whitmore: Self-contained protagonist with nary an annoying teenage quality in sight
Conner Kirk: Jack’s exceedingly loyal and horny best friend
Wynn & Stella: Jack’s indulgent grandparents
Freddie Horvath: Jack’s kidnapper
Henry Hewitt: Portal to Marbury
Ben & Griffin: Jack’s friends and fellow warriors in Marbury
Nickie: Jack’s meet-fugue love interest in London
Seth: A friendly ghost
A sphincter-clenching journey through the war-torn desolation of Marbury as it converges with the equally chilling aftermath of Jack’s abduction as he tries to outrun the experience in London.
Here’s the blurb:
“Sixteen-year-old Jack gets drunk and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is kidnapped. He escapes, narrowly. The only person he tells is his best friend, Conner. When they arrive in London as planned for summer break, a stranger hands Jack a pair of glasses. Through the lenses, he sees another world called Marbury.
There is war in Marbury. It is a desolate and murderous place where Jack is responsible for the survival of two younger boys. Conner is there, too. But he’s trying to kill them.
Meanwhile, Jack is falling in love with an English girl, and afraid he’s losing his mind.
Conner tells Jack it’s going to be okay.
But, it’s not.”
worldview or, in this case, worldsviews
Were I a blurb-writer who needed to convey the tone of the novel as compared to others, The Marbury Lens would prompt me to use words like “unflinching” and “fearless” to describe how it approaches Jack’s kidnapping and its aftermath. Such descriptions have become clichéd to the point of meaninglessness, though, and seem to simply suggest that the author succeeded in writing about a potentially upsetting subject with the same ability as they might write about a pleasant one. It’s more accurate to say that Smith explores a world in which occurrences make ripples in characters’ lives, changing the way they approach the world around them. That is, Jack undergoes a trauma and afterward he sees the world through the lens of that trauma. This is a dark book, but dark because it’s about abuse, war, violence, betrayal and love, not dark because it is hopeless.
The Marbury Lens is the kind of book that makes me a fierce champion of young adult literature. I picked the book up in the library while waiting to meet a friend because I absolutely adored the cover (by Rich Deas, creative director at Feiwel and Friends). By the time my friend showed up, I was two chapters in and had already checked it out. I began reading, that is, with no expectations. The strong voice of the first-person narrator struck me from the first page; it had a tone of what I can only call resignation in beginning to tell what would clearly be a difficult story. Unlike many young adult novels, which seem to slavishly embrace teenspeak, avoiding language or ideas that might seem unrealistic in the mouths of their teen characters, The Marbury Lens uses Jack’s first-person narration as a tool: because Jack questions what is real, we must necessarily see things from his perspective, but because it is written retrospectively, that perspective is mature and natural. For example:
It’s like one of those Russian dolls that you open up, and open up again. And each layer becomes something else.
On the outside is the universe, painted dark purple, decorated with planets and comets, stars. Then you open it, and you see the Earth, and when that comes apart, there’s Marbury, a place that’s kind of like here, except none of the horrible things in Marbury are invisible. They’re painted right there on the surface where you can plainly see them” (3).
But Jack is not moving from London to Marbury. He is living both at the same time. The story of life and war in Marbury happens alongside Jack’s experiences in London, and is just as vivid. It’s part harrowing survival story and part gruesome horror; the prose is gorgeous and revolting. Many reviews of the book—even the plot blurb above—suggest that Marbury is all in Jack’s mind; that it is a reaction to the trauma of being kidnapped and sexually abused. Rather, the relationship among Jack’s different narratives, as he tells us at the outset, is complicated and unclear, nested within one another, but always touching. Elements of the worlds bleed into one another, roiling in an awesome mess of violence, pain, desire, addiction, fear, and friendship.
“And I see Jack as a kind of an arrow shaft that shoots through every layer,” Jack narrates, “simultaneously, the point directly piercing the exact center. I think everyone’s an arrow like that, too, aiming into their own centers” (282). This notion that each person’s reality is made up of a cross-section of multiple, abutting dimensions is a wonderful device for the fantastic elements of the book, certainly. But it’s also an elegant way to think about how the pain or trauma from one experience in Jack’s life can reverberate through multiple layers of his experience.
Smith’s characters are very well-crafted and various. Jack is complex and vulnerable, even while his voice is at turns self-recriminating, furious, and terrified. Conner, Jack’s best friend, is cocky, horny, and fiercely loyal to Jack, and the scenes in which Conner attempts to support Jack while neither of them have any idea what to do about their situation are particularly well-rendered.
As the novel continues, the walls among the different worlds begin to crumble and we are less sure which world things belong in. At the same time, Jack begins a romance with Nickie, a girl he meets in London. The simple and straightforward feelings that Jack and Nickie have for one another highlight the complex and uncertain relationships that Jack has with each other character, from the mother who birthed him on his grandparents’ kitchen floor and the ghost whose story crosses his own, to the man who kidnapped and abused him who, Jack thinks, did something to his brain.
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
The Marbury Lens asks what it would feel like to suddenly become aware that the world you have thought to be all-encompassing actually breaks apart quite easily to reveal another world touching it. For me, this was an unqualified success. The way the book is written manifests this for the reader. The story begins unfolding in California, setting the scene for the world we are familiar with being reality. Then, slowly, it begins moving back and forth between London and Marbury, making the reader as uncertain as Jack is about how much time has passed in either one. Finally, the addition of ghost-Seth’s story expands the scope of how many worlds might lurk beneath the conscious surface of what we thought was a singular reality, calling that reality itself into question.
Smith never panders to the reader by explaining the complexities of the story, and he doesn’t need to: his writing is so compelling and his narrative so mesmerizing that is a pleasure (albeit sometimes a painful one) to be pulled from one dark world to the next.
While The Marbury Lens absolutely holds up as a stand-alone novel (and, indeed, when I read it I didn’t know there would be more to the story), the sequel, Passenger, is coming out in the Fall of 2012, according to Smith’s blog.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough—it is absolutely one of the best young adult books I’ve read. I feel quite impotent to convey how gobsmacked by it I was. In fact, if there is something that I could have written that would make you want to read it, pretend that’s exactly what I did write.
One of the things that I really appreciate about The Marbury Lens, and about Smith as an author/speaker/mentor, is that he’s particularly interested in writing books with male characters and in fostering literacy and writing in young men. This isn’t, of course, to suggest that this limits his audience in any way—rather that he has clearly taken an interest in purposely targeting an audience that is personal and meaningful for him and directing resources toward that audience.
Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic #1), by Kathleen Duey (2007). These books both glory in the details of dark and eerie worlds in which characters must confront (and often exceed) their own fears or assumptions to progress. You can read my enthusiastic review of Skin Hunger here.
And, of course, any other book by Andrew Smith. They’re all wonderful and we’ll be reviewing more in the future.
Procured from: the library—but loved it so much that I immediately bought a copy! Also, check out our list of other books that we first got from the library but loved so much we had to own them here.