By Alexis M. Smith
HMH Books: June 7, 2016
$23.00, 250 pages
Alexis Smith, whose 2012 debut, Glaciers (Tin House Books), is a contemporary classic of crystalline insight and prose, fulfills the immense promise of that tightly focused, internal novel with Marrow Island, a haunting and suspenseful story with a message that is both of and for these times.
Twelve-year-old Lucie Bowen was forced to flee her life in the San Juan Islands off the northwest coast of Washington in 1993 when a major earthquake destroyed the refinery on one end of Marrow Island, killing her father and making the island uninhabitable. After two decades of grief for the father and childhood she lost and struggling with her single mother to rebuild their life, Lucie is called back to the islands in 2014 by her best friend of the time, Katie, with whom she had long ago lost touch.
Lucie, now a journalist, returns to neighboring Orwell Island, to her father’s childhood home, which her mother had managed to maintain as a vacation rental in the intervening years. A letter from Katie reveals that she is living on Marrow Island, as a member of the secretive Marrow Colony. Lucie is wary but curious — about Katie’s life, the Colony, and the state of Marrow Island, which is supposed to be abandoned. From the vantage point of an isolated outpost in the Malheur National Forest in 2016, a devastated Lucie tells the story of what happened during her visit in 2014, with frequent flashbacks to 1993. Only in the retelling of her experiences is Lucie able to make sense of events. As she notes while hiking in the Malheur, “Taking the same trail in the opposite direction is like walking on the other side of time. Everything looks different on the way back…But going back the way you came, it’s just as easy to lose your footing, but it’s harder to get lost. The light shines on things you didn’t notice on the way there. The path back, it’s the story you tell yourself, afterward.”
For nothing is as Lucie expected. The Marrow Colony, about three dozen strong, is led by the mysterious and charismatic former nun, Sister Janet. What appears to be a self-sustaining commune, experimenting with various environmental practices and spirituality, is involved in far more important and controversial activities. Lucie is welcomed, although somewhat coolly, to the Colony, both as a trusted friend of longtime member Katie and a journalist with expertise in ecological issues. But as Lucie slowly discovers the Colony’s groundbreaking work, suspicions about her develop. They are engaged in ecological remediation, “ministering to the earth,” in an effort to reclaim Marrow Island from the damage done by the toxic materials used to put out the fire, which poisoned the groundwater and soil.
Their experimental efforts are worthwhile and productive, surprising even the dreamers and true believers of the Colony. But the insular group eventually finds itself faced with morally and scientifically complex ramifications of the research as it veers beyond their control, creating legal and ethical issues of great import. And Lucie, as the now suspicious outsider, finds herself caught in a situation she only partially understands.
Smith has taken a huge step forward from her debut novel, with a multifaceted exploration of grief, memory, friendship, betrayal, good intentions and zealotry. Her narrative, moving back and forth in time and place, generates steadily increasing suspense without becoming simple page-turning genre fiction. As with Glaciers, Smith proves herself a master of mood, maintaining a sense of foreboding throughout. She is also one of our best guides to the natural world, describing places and weather with poetic prose. Arriving on Marrow Island to Katie’s welcome, Lucie follow her from the dock toward the Colony. “We tramped up a gravel path, winding through boulders weedy with vetch and bird-scattered mussel shells, the rocks slick with last night’s mist. The sun broke through the clouds and lit up the tree line behind the chapel. Gulls wove in and out of the long early morning shadows.”
Marrow Island is a probing and thought-provoking investigation into what is possible in our efforts to save the earth from the destruction we wreak upon it, and the price we pay for both the damage we do and our attempts to repair our handiwork.