Marrow Island – Alexis M. Smith
Twenty years ago Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island. Along with her mother, she fled the aftermath of an earthquake that compromised the local refinery, killing her father and ravaging the island’s environment. Now, Lucie’s childhood friend Kate is living within a mysterious group called Marrow Colony—a community that claims to be “ministering to the Earth.” There have been remarkable changes to the land at the colony’s homestead. Lucie’s experience as a journalist tells her there’s more to the Colony—and their charismatic leader—than they want her to know, and that the astonishing success of their environmental remediation has come at great cost to the Colonists themselves. As she uncovers their secrets and methods, will Lucie endanger more than their mission? What price will she pay for the truth?
Review: This is one of those novels that have everything I like in a book. A remote setting, a narrator with a complicated past, an island full of nature-worshipping hippies, and a lot of secrets. It’s also one of those novels that have a massive amount of potential but end up being “Meh.”
Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island after an earthquake destroyed everything. It damaged the refinery, which killed Lucie’s father and polluted the island so badly that it became uninhabitable. When Lucie moves away from the island, she leaves behind her best friend and occasional lover, Kate. Twenty years after the earthquake, Kate writes to Lucie and tells her that she has moved back to Marrow Island. Kate is part of Marrow Colony, a group of religious hippies who are using mushrooms to repair the environment. Lucy eagerly goes to visit her old friend, but after a night of partying with the colonists, she finds herself in deadly trouble.
The story takes place on two timelines. In the present day, Lucie is living in a ranger station and dealing with the fallout of the events that occurred on Marrow Island. Kate is in prison. There are flashback chapters that show what happened on the island. I love this structure because it builds tension. Lucie is still really messed up from her near-death experience in Marrow Colony. She’s also still involved with the colonists, even though they almost got her killed, and most of them are in prison. I kept reading because I had to know what happened at the Colony. What secrets were they hiding? What did they do to get themselves thrown in jail?
The setting in this book is beautifully described. It made me want to visit the Pacific Northwest. If you’re interested in climate change and environmental issues, I’d recommend this novel. To me, it seems very realistic and well-researched.
My main issue with Marrow Island is the pacing. It feels like it takes forever for the action to get started, and once it does start, it’s over quickly. Lucie is a very self-absorbed person. She spends most of her time alone in the forest, thinking about her life. She doesn’t have any meaningful connections with other people, so most of the characters are flat. They’re just random acquaintances. The reader doesn’t learn much about them. I didn’t find Lucie’s thoughts very compelling to read. I wanted her to do something. Or meet someone. Or think about something besides herself.
“So much of our thinking is involved with things we’ve already done and things we have yet to do. It’s almost impossible not to be thinking about some future moment or some past mistake or tragedy.” – Marrow Island
When she (finally!) reaches the island, she gets a long lecture about mushrooms and the environment. Again, I had a hard time staying interested in this. Before Lucie became a self-obsessed forest-wanderer, she was a newspaper reporter, so I expected her to immediately start digging for Marrow Colony’s secrets. She didn’t. She got high and discovered the secrets by accident. I guess that’s realistic, but after spending so many pages waiting for something to happen, I was slightly disappointed. I wish Lucie had more agency. Most of the events in this book seem like accidents.
“When I let go of my own work, my own priorities, I lost the qualities he had been attracted to in the first place. That's how he put it. He loved the woman I was before I was in love with him.” – Marrow Island
Maybe this book would have benefited from being longer? It’s quite short. I think I would have liked more past-Lucie and less present-Lucie. More time on the island would have helped me understand the other characters better. I wasn’t always sure about their motives.
If you’re interested in environmental issues, then this book is worth reading, but I was disappointed with the meandering plot and underdeveloped characters.
TL;DR: Too much navel-gazing, not enough action.