As with his first book, and I presume the second (haven’t read it yet), Brian Selznick brings a surprising and wonderful combination of storytelling types and mediums to his third book. About half is text and about half is wordless pencil drawings of considerable skill (almost 400 pages of them), each filling a two-page spread edge to edge like this:
And neither my scan nor the size I can show it here does the work justice. The long art-only section which opens the book is mostly wordless except for a few printed signs and newspaper articles, and details the life and adventures of a boy, Billy Marvel, on a ship at sea in 1766, his shipwreck and eventual return to London where he finds a new life working at the Royal Theatre. We then follow several generations of the Marvel family in that theatre, most actors, until the narrative abruptly ends and the prose story begins.
The prose story, about equally long in this 670-page book, begins in 1990 with another boy, Joseph Jervis, who is running away from his boarding school, where he didn’t fit in, to London in hopes that his uncle Albert Nightingale, who he’s never met, will take him in. Joseph has lots of trouble even finding his uncle, and when he does, that uncle doesn’t want him to stay…at least, not for long. Joseph gradually befriends his uncle after all, and does get to stay, but finds the house they’re in full of mysteries and stories. Those stories include the ones we’ve seen in the drawn story.
Brian Selznick is just as clever and complex a storyteller as he is an artist, and before this very long book is through, many revelations about what is really going on and how the stories and the people in them connect come forth. Some of the plot went in places I would never have expected in a book for younger readers, but that’s not a bad thing, and it’s carefully handled. I can’t say I liked this book as much as Selznick’s first, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” but it’s still quite excellent and well worth reading. The production values on the hardcover edition I was given for Christmas are also remarkable and impressive. This is one book you want to have a physical copy of, not a digital one.