Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith
Copyright 2010
Square Fish - YA/Fantasy-SciFi
358 pp.

I have mixed feelings about The Marbury Lens, a book in which a pair of glasses with purple lenses transport characters to another world, a dark place known as Marbury that has been ravaged by a disease that turns people into monsters.

Jack is not a very happy young man. 16 years old, reserved and uncomfortable in his home life with grandparents Wynn and Stella, born to an unwed mother and teased at school, the only thing that keeps Jack going is his friendship with Conner, who cares for him unconditionally. Conner and Jack are preparing to travel to England to visit a school at which they're considering finishing their high school educations. But, first, they have plans to party.

At the party, Jack gets drunk and is pressured to do things (besides drinking to extremes) that he doesn't want to do. He tries to stumble home but gets kidnapped. Helped by a mysterious force, Jack manages to escape but the worst isn't over. By the time he arrives in England, Jack has been severely traumatized. When a mysterious man gives him a pair of glasses with purple lenses, things get really weird. In Marbury, Jack and his friends Ben and Griffin must fight to survive. Jack is pulled back and forth between the two worlds and isn't certain what's happening. Is Marbury real or was his brain damaged by the drugs given to him by his kidnapper? Is it worth even trying to survive in such a horrific place? Is there anything he can do to save his friend when he discovers Conner has been claimed by the monstrous disease that turns people into "devils"? How is a ghost able to help Jack in both Marbury and the real world? Or, is the real world even real at all? Why does Jack feel compelled to keep returning to Marbury?

As I was reading The Marbury Lens, the most overwhelming thought to which I kept returning was, "This is coming from a very dark place." I wondered what happened to the author to prompt him to write something so dark. And, when I say dark I'm referring to violence and gore, fear for one's life, the terror of torture and attempted rape . . . seriously unfathomable dark, not the kind of things this mind could even begin to approach from a written perspective. An interview with the author included in the book confirmed that the author did, indeed, have some very bad experiences as a teen. I'm going to share the part of the interview I feel is most relevant:

" . . . The Marbury Lens is ultimately about how one tragic event can have rippling consequences over the timeline of an innocent's life. The Marbury Lens is about how Jack tries, arguably with varying degrees of success, to deal with that issue despite his obvious flaws and predilection toward blaming himself." The next book in the series (so far, there are two books but the author mentioned on Twitter that he hopes to someday write a third) explores how Jack's trauma effects those around him. As dark as it is, there was a point at which I felt the same unbearable pull to return to the book that Jack feels about returning to Marbury and I do want to read on.

What I disliked about The Marbury Lens:

While it's probably realistic in many regards, I found the heavy drinking to help the two main characters forget their problems distressing. And, it was pretty shocking to me that at a mere 16 years of age Jack was so heavily pressured to prove his heterosexuality. He was relentlessly teased and not without effect. All the way through the book, Jack keeps thinking, "F*** you, Jack," to himself, not only because he's traumatized but probably because the constant abuse and the feeling of being rejected (starting with rejection by his own mother) has damaged him to the point that you wonder if he can keep from taking his own life. Although he doesn't ever mention suicide as a possibility, Jack's self-loathing is worrying. However, when he's in Marbury, Jack's survival instinct is his dominant feature. So, you know he has the capacity to dig deep and find a way to emerge from trauma.

I've recently taken to reading negative reviews in order to find out what people hate about a book, either to compare my own feelings with that of others or just out of curiosity. And, yes, the heavy drinking, sex, the constant use of vulgarity, the graphic violence and gore were all mentioned in the 1-star reviews of The Marbury Lens (the book still gets high ratings, in spite of its detractors). There have been times I have flatly rejected finishing books for less, so I can understand the readers' sentiments. But . . .

What I liked about The Marbury Lens:

There are some fascinating aspects to The Marbury Lens and they kept me turning the pages. For example, although the book is incredibly gory, I wanted to know what Marbury was -- whether real or imagined. Jack isn't the only person who can travel to Marbury but is it possible that he's imagining everything -- both the real world and the gory parallel world to which he repeatedly travels? I also just happen to love survival, so I did my best to overlook the horrifying parts and focus on the survival aspect. I really enjoyed finding out how Jack and his friends dealt with challenges.

One of my favorite parts involved a train full of mummified bodies in the middle of a desert. How did the train get there? How did its passengers die? Those questions aren't answered (although the author hints at an explanation in Passenger, the second book) but the train, in spite of its horrors, contains an unexpected treasure trove that will help the boys in their fight for survival. And, occasionally there is a glimpse of that train, or its parallel, in the real-world portions of The Marbury Lens. In other words, I was intrigued enough to keep turning the pages.

Recommended with a family warning - Although The Marbury Lens is a Young Adult book, it's one I'd advise reading along with your kids if they are at all interested in it as young adults. There's plenty to discuss. Many of the scenes in the book serve as warnings of the dangers of heavy drinking, trusting strangers, not being honest with the adults in your world (although, fortunately for Jack, he trusts Conner enough to reveal most everything and it's only when he's not fully open that their friendship falters).

As a parent, those are some of the things I would talk about with a teenager, along with how to find the confidence to say "no" to things that make you feel uncomfortable. The teen years are rough and I'm all for opening dialogue to let your kids know you've got their backs. But, The Marbury Lens is definitely a dark read, maybe too dark for some. If you have a particularly sensitive, nightmare-prone child, I'd advise steering him or her away from The Marbury Lens. The book did feed into my dream life, although oddly not in a bad way. Had it produced too many nightmares, I probably wouldn't be interested in reading Passenger. But, it definitely has the potential to trigger nightmares. There are also oversized bugs that eat the dead. Eww.

Side note:  There's a ghost named Seth in The Marbury Lens and while I had trouble understanding how a ghost could do the things this one did (luring the monstrous "devils", helping people heal), I really liked that particular character. He has a backstory all his own, which is slowly revealed, and his presence adds an interesting dimension to the overall story. And, in the end, you have to realize that there's a fantasy aspect to The Marbury Lens that cannot be reasoned out. Best just to let go and see where the author takes you.

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  1. I'm reading this one right now and I think I'm going to walk away with the same feelings you had. It's so, so dark that I have a hard time picking it back up but on the other hand, I want to know what happens. It'll be a slow painful read for me.

    1. Cool that you're reading it, too, Jenny! Yeah, it's a hard read. It took me about 4 days to finish, partly because I needed to occasionally walk away from it. But, it's a page-turner.

  2. I've had this on the shelf for quite awhile, and while I can appreciate your problems with the text, I think I still have to give it a try. I do so like dark from time to time.

    1. I tend to love sweetness and light but it's nice to throw something dark into the mix, now and then, and I really enjoyed the uniqueness. Hope you enjoy it, Trisha!


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