One of the other books I picked up at the public library a few weeks ago was Alexis M. Smith’s 2016 novel Marrow Island. It’d been on my radar for months, ever since Karen and Amanda, the former hosts of the Portland Silent Reading Party mentioned it on both their blog and Facebook page. Figuring any book Karen and Amanda promotes has got to be good I decided to grab a copy of Marrow Island. I’m happy I did.
What I didn’t know until I started reading Marrow Island it’s by an author who lives in town. I’ve always been a bit skeptical when it comes to local writers because I suspect some of them are praised not necessary for their talents but because they’re local. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with Smith since Marrow Island is an award-winning novel, receiving accolades from the likes of Ellie and Book Riot.
Marrow Island is not some simple tale set in the Pacific Northwest but a multidimensional novel that succeeds in combining a number of diverse elements. Not only is it an ecological thriller with LGBTQ romantic overtones, (without revealing too much, it won a Lambda Award for best bisexual fiction) there’s also an alternate history aspect of the novel, since it’s set in the Pacific Northwest 20 years after a major earthquake devastated the greater Puget Sound. There’s also political and social commentary thrown in, as Smith describes how Seattle and the surrounding area rebuilt it gentrified, thus driving out not just the poor, working class and people of color but also the non affluent middle class. Lastly, in Marrow Island human driven climate change is a hard and fast reality as Smith mentions almost in passing the droughts, shortened rainy seasons and intense summer heat that plague the region.
The story bounces back between the present and two years earlier when the protagonist Lucie Bowen, an out of work investigative journalist returns to her old stomping grounds of Marrow Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Thought to have been abandoned after the quake, Lucie’s heard rumors the island is now home to vibrant community known as the Colony. Led by an environmentally conscious nun, members of this Catholic Worker-esque commune live off the grid, preferring to subsist on locally grown food while using indigenous flora for medicinal purposes. During her visit Lucie learns of the Colony’s practice of employing mushrooms to cleanse the island’s soil, severely polluted after the local oil refinery exploded and caught fire during the quake, and made worse by fire retardants used in fighting the fire. Before long however she learns the colony’s ecological mission comes with a steep price: cancer is ravaging the Colony and babies are being still-born.
Rest assured, whatever I fears I might have had about the praiseworthiness of local authors Marrow Island succeeds on its own merits. Without a doubt it’s an enjoyable novel.