The Marble Collector

What a perfectly revealed, layered story this book tells.  Cecelia Ahren has constructed a bright and unusual tale, layering stories between daughter and father in one intense eclipse-fuelled day.  The Marble Collector was so surprisingly deep and fresh, beautifully told; a detailed novel with real thought and spirit.

Sabrina Boggs is a lifesaver who finds it hard to breath above water, a mother of three, a wife, and a daughter to Fergus.  After a severe stroke, Fergus lives in a rehabilitation hospital, is one of seven raucous brothers, is a divorceé, father, and was almost bankrupted by the GFC.  This is a fairly simple setup, laying out the bald facts of life.  But when a box packed with Fergus’ things arrives at his hospital, Sabrina discovers a life within the life her father has been leading.  Spurred by an antsy feeling and a full-moon eclipse, Sabrina follows the trail and unravels a parallel life, a hidden side of Fergus.

Ahren has presented this story in a split narrative: the chapters alternate between ‘Pool Rules’ – Sabrina – and ‘Playing With Marbles’ – Fergus, and as Sabrina’s journey finds more secrets, Fergus fills us in with memories, moments, details from his confused mind.  And the reader is kept in almost as much mystery as both Sabrina and Fergus.  Due to the stroke, Fergus has lost a lot of both his short and long term memory.  The man whose life we are unravelling cannot remember this part of his life himself, so who knows how it is going to end?

There is a real tenderness in this telling, an intelligent empathy that is able to balance the mistakes and flaws in a person with the fraught position they are telling their story from.  And it’s bloody funny as well.  Fergus is a mad, sharp little boy in a rough family with a tough Irish mum.  The vernacular language, the tumble of their childhood, it just rings true with humour and life.  Once, after little brother Bobby ate one of his marbles, Fergus frets about his mother finding out with his older brother Hamish:

“I picture Jesus on the cross, the nails through his hands and wonder why nobody ever wondered if Mary had done it.  If maybe the biggest miracle of all wasn’t Mary getting pregnant without every touching a mickey, but Jesus’s ma getting away with nailing him to a cross.  If I ever end up on a cross, the first person anyone will suspect is my ma and she won’t bother with the fourteen stations, she’ll just get straight to it…

‘Yeah, but I have to tell her,’ I say nervously, heart pounding, body trembling.  I’m thinking of thorns in my head, nails in my hands, a rag around my mickey and my nips out for everyone to see.”

In contrast, Sabrina can be fraught, littered with reminders to breathe and a rising anxiety as she finds out more and more about the life Fergus lived without her and her mum.  But she is more than a stereotypical harried mum, she is given a depth and inner life.  She begins to question her own memories of her father and childhood as she discovers more about her fathers’.

In the end, The Marble Collector is about childhood, a loss of childhood, and how memories can maketh the man, or not.  It is also not about what you think: there is no secret affair as some heartbreaking plot point; this is seriously about a boy, then a man, who loves marbles, and how that affects how he sees his world.  It was a pleasure to read, took me by total surprise with its intelligent warmth and detailed story-telling.  Spirited and smart, it was a total joy of a book.

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