The Ecology of Storytelling: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

marrow-islandAs a girl, I consumed everything terrifying and twisted. It’s a habit I’ve never managed to shake. To this day I’ve seen nearly every horror and thriller film I can get my stubby fingers on. So I couldn’t help but pick up Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

Smith utilizes the novel form to create a sense of urgency and tension. We are enveloped into the fabric of the story from the first stunning handful of pages – ripe with the kind of action that marks a successful storyteller.

Smith propels us into the strange new terrain of the Pacific Northwest. And yet, it’s not new. I’ve heard of Spokane; I’ve read Sherman Alexie. I know how to point out Oregon and Washington on the map. The landscape never seemed so different from other parts of the United States. But somehow I feel as if I’ve entered undiscovered territory. I’ve stepped away from the Midwest and entered the scathing and glorious forests and islands of the Northwest. I’ve learned a new love for the fascinating relationships between organisms and their environment.  It isn’t until now, at the end of my journey with our main character, Lucie, that I see the thread of ecology tying the whole novel together.

I wonder why Smith’s novel is structured in a nonlinear fashion. Why do we move between past and present, beginning with the lynch pin prologue? Why not include the prologue as a dated entry like the other chapters? I understand why the first scene had to come first. It’s like jumping into the splintering cold river and feeling the shock of death that the cold can bring so close. We feel Lucie’s shock and her traumatic departure from Marrow Island in our guts. It’s an interesting and also gratifying way to begin a novel. And we end Marrow Island with a cleansing of fire, where Lucie’s hope of revealing the evidence that her first love, Katie, visited her before her death is lost. Smith’s choice to end the novel on such a tense scene is masterful. However, everything that comes between feels shallow. Perhaps it’s Smith’s ability to craft spectacular nature scenes and her ability to play with narrative time during pivotal moments that leaves me feeling cheated. The book felt too short. The encounters on Marrow Island in particular could have been expanded. I couldn’t figure out why we were getting Lucie’s present perspective with her new lover in Oregon – until Lucie explained that she was having a hard time looking to the past while writing her book. Then it began to make sense, and I saw Smith explaining her choices within the text. Lucie is not only the narrator but this book is also the depiction of the story she is struggling to write. I still would have liked to have more of Lucie on Marrow Island, more of her relationships to the people there, more of their relationships to each other. That’s where it felt the real story was, where I was reading on the edge of my seat. While I appreciate Smith’s choices to craft the novel by Lucie’s voice and instinct, I wonder if there wasn’t another way.unnamed1

What I appreciate most about Smith is her willingness to explore desire and sexuality. I wasn’t prepared for the tender moments of love and connection between Carey and Lucie or between Lucie and Katie. I wasn’t prepared at all for Lucie’s romantic love for Katie, but I was excited to see this accurate depiction of sexuality and love. It felt like Smith had finally ushered fiction into the realm of reality, where life is fluid and unpredictable, and people have love and desire beyond the societal binary.

I’ll be looking forward to Smith’s future work and hoping I find some the same narrative elements that appear in Marrow Island.

June 7th, 2016

Hard Cover, 9780544373419, $23.00 (USD)