“You either see it or you don’t.”
That epigram opens and appears throughout “The Marvels,” Brian Selznick’s mysterious, inventive novel aimed at young adults but sure to intrigue readers of any age. Once again, Selznick showcases the cinematic style and blend of prose and pictures that he pioneered with “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and the basis for the Oscar-winning film “Hugo.”
In “Wonderstruck” (2011), Selznick, who illustrates his books in graphite pencil, experimented with a dual narrative, but “The Marvels” is his most innovative use of the form to date. The sweeping tale ranges across time and space to tell an intricate story within a story.
Selznick’s repeating aphorism entices readers to peer closely at the 390 pages of pictures that compose the first part of the book, which begins with a shipwreck and follows a family of English actors from 1766 to 1900. In the second part, a seemingly unrelated narrative set in 1990, 13-year-old Joseph Jervis wonders what he must be overlooking. Why does his uncle live like someone from the late 1800s? And why is his London home full of ghostly voices? Readers can hunt for clues, reexamine the illustrations, construct and deconstruct narratives and finally come to a conclusion at once satisfying and strange.
As a child, Selznick, who has also worked as a set designer and puppeteer, was fascinated by Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers.” He even made tiny furniture for the little people in that classic story. That robust imaginative world still informs his creative work. One does not read a Selznick novel so much as inhabit it. His figures seem to have weight and solidity, sculpted through crosshatching and meticulous shading. His places are busy with turbulent waves, crowded streets and Victorian furniture. Even the smallest details — a curtain’s fold, the eye of a dog — are carefully rendered. And the whole is animated by the page turn: The characters seem to move across space and time as the reader travels through the book.
“The Marvels” explores themes of time and family in absorbing, thought-provoking ways. Both epic and deeply intimate, this engrossing adventure also reflects on the nature of creativity and storytelling. Art is seen to illuminate life and life to constantly spark art — a point further reinforced in the afterword when Selznick reveals his inspiration. Rich with “miracles and sadness,” a bookmaking tour de force, this novel is as full of marvels as its title suggests.
Mary Quattlebaum regularly reviews books for The Washington Post. She is the author of 22 children’s books, including, most recently, “Mighty Mole and Super Soil.”
By Brian Selznick
640 pp. $32.99
Age 10 and older