Too often novels that scratch at environmental disaster become pigeonholed as dystopia or sensational science fiction. It’s a skillful writer who can overcome this problem of genre. Alexis M. Smith, whose debut novel, “Glaciers,” was a stealth cult hit, is an elegant writer to watch. Her “Marrow Island” is an ambitious literary novel with an intensely personal core.
Smith has created a fictional environmental catastrophe that, given Kathryn Schultz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on earthquakes for the New Yorker magazine (newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one), could very well be a reality.
In “Marrow Island,” journalist Lucie Bowen was a child at the time of the fictional 1993 May Day Quake, which was felt as far north as Juneau, Alaska, and as far south as Salinas, Calif. The epicenter was at Puget Sound. Lucie’s father worked in a refinery on Marrow Island, and the quake prompted a fire that destroyed the refinery and also killed him. The disaster site was then abandoned, deemed unfit to redevelop or recover.
As an adult, Lucie’s life resembles that of other journalists. Bad times for the industry mean lean newsrooms. A breakup followed by two rounds of layoffs leaves her incapable of paying rent. Desperate for a break, she accepts her mother’s offer to live in her family’s deserted home on Orwell Island, another island in the Sound near Marrow Island.
In the decades since the disaster, a commune, Marrow Colony, has been established on the island. When Lucie’s charismatic friend Katie invites her to visit the commune, an act that would revive their friendship, Lucie chooses to confront the site of her father’s death in order to write a story that could also revive her career.
“To retell it was to relive it,” and so Lucie walks into a minefield of grief and unanswered questions. She isn’t alone. Katie has chosen to confront the past directly by working hard to create a better future. She is part of a band of misfits led by Sister Janet, a defrocked nun with a background in social justice and a history of civil disobedience. While Lucie initially maintains an objective distance, she becomes increasingly drawn into the commune’s project to reclaim the scarred earth. She also becomes seduced by the charm of her old friend, her first love.
Using a dual narrative, Smith toggles between two periods in Lucie’s life, highlighting her capacity to forgive. Dedicated to the hope of a better, healed land, Lucie pushes herself to heal her own psychic wounds despite the fallout that may ensue. Smith constructs a world not far removed from our own where people unflinchingly face the cost of our personal and environmental ruin.
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
By: Alexis M. Smith.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 244 pages, $23.