Sep 18

Book Review: Marrow Island

Marrow IslandMarrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

This book has a few cool things to recommend it. It takes place in the Pacific Northwest, alternating between an island off the coast of Washington and a forest in Oregon. The event that triggers all else is the “May Day Quake” that leveled much of the Pacific Northwest and blew up a refinery on Marrow Island, leading to the death of the main character’s father, gross environmental pollutants making much of Marrow and its neighbor Orwell uninhabitable for years. The author describes the earthquake, its aftermath, and the reconstruction with so much credibility and authority that I thought she was describing a genuine event until I realized that May 1, 1993 fell within the window I myself was living in Seattle, and I think I would have noticed if a quake destroyed the city.

There are two storylines, one in 2016 in the Malheur forest Oregon, and one in 2014 on Marrow island. (I gotta say, I love the names. Marrow, as in the flesh inside a bone. Orwell, as in the author noted for inventing dystopian fiction and Malheur, from the French meaning bad mood.) In the 2014 storyline, Lucy is going to Marrow Island to visit her old friend and lover Katie. In 2016, Lucy is with her forest-fighting boyfriend Kerry in Oregon, and alluding to the time when she was on Marrow and Lucy tried to kill her. She’s been asked to visit Sister J from the island, who is on her deathbed.

I have to say, I got a little confused at first between the two storylines. Oregon and Washington aren’t all that different from one another. Kerry appears in both storylines, so you have to really pay attention to know if it’s the “before” storyline or the after. The story of Marrow island is of course the most compelling. Marrow island is uninhabitable, and yet people are living there. How? How are they living on polluted land and drinking polluted water? The “how” is creepy and cool, and even creepier is the hidden cost they are all paying. The cult-like colony/commune has that same frission of equal parts “sounds like utopia” and “OMG something terrible is going to happen.”

I can’t talk about the plot much without ruining it for other people. The plot is like being given pieces of a jigsaw one by one by someone who really doesn’t want you to see the picture and figure it all out until the very last minute. Annoying as it was to not know what happened, the plot is really great. High drama, emotion, high stakes, tension.

The characters, however, weren’t that great. Lucy’s main quality seems to be that she runs away from her problems and seems to be courting death. Kerry is kind of a blank. Katie is the bad girl, and far more interesting than Lucy so I wished I’d known more about their relationship except that Lucy loved her. Did Katie love her back? Was she just a user? Why did Katie keep asking Lucy to return? Her motives were not quite clear to me. Come to think of it, nor were Lucy’s. I knew what Katie held most dear, but Lucy just seemed to be a drifter whose only consistency was disappointing the people dear to her. As great as the plot was, Lucy didn’t feel like a real person I could care about. Nothing much mattered to her, except Katie, and if Katie mattered, why didn’t she return earlier? Hard to like someone who doesn’t even seem to have the will to figure out what she wants and try to get it. She’s really just a witness to someone else’s far more interesting story.

Still, it’s nicely creepy, and it’s made me think a lot about mushrooms.

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