In the prologue of the latest novel by Cecelia Ahern, we learn that one of the main characters, Sabrina Boggs, has an uncanny ability to remember what other people have forgotten and she also lives by the rules of life. She tells us: “I follow the rules of who I know myself to be and can’t seem to be anything else, not even in moments of great stress when surely a meltdown would be acceptable.” However she also believes a change in a person’s behaviour is lying dormant, “just waiting for its moment to be revealed. Including me.”
We are immediately given an insight into a woman who plays by the rules, but we sense that she is a tinder box waiting to explode. The story unfolds as Sabrina discovers a collection of marbles belonging to her father, Fergus Boggs. He has suffered a stroke and is now in a long term care facility. When Sabrina discovers that two of the most expensive collections are missing from the inventory of marbles, it sets off a chain of events that will lead her to question everything about her life.
It may sound like a simple enough plot, but there is nothing simple about this novel at all. The structure is well thought out and clever. Each chapter told by Fergus is titled with the name of a game of marbles, which also covers the theme of the chapter, and each chapter told by Sabrina is titled with a rule of the swimming pool. The rule is taken from the list of pool rules at the nursing home, where she works as a lifeguard.
The book begins with Fergus Boggs as a five year old child at school. Following a vicious beating from Father Murphy for not understanding his Irish properly, he is locked in a dark room. A younger kind priest comes to see him in the dark room and gives him some marbles. The marbles represent goodness, but to Fergus they are initially objects to play with, which bring fun and competition into his young life. The marbles also bring him closer to his favourite older brother Hamish and his mother (who totally out of character plays a game of marbles with him one day,) and so the marbles become infinitely precious to him. As he grows older, he uses them to compete, to gain respect and to distract him from the difficulties of living with a large and rather dysfunctional family. However they also lead him to live a double life, as he keeps secret his love of marbles and competing in marble tournaments. This may be due to his initial feelings of pain and humiliation as a child, or because his wife rejected a marble he bought her on their honeymoon. Either way his love of marbles has remained a secret – until now.
Sabrina Boggs works as a lifeguard at a nursing home, where her daily routine is suffocating her and when not at work, all her time is taken up with her three young children. She shows this through her often repeated mantra of making the sandwiches for her children every day, “Butter, ham, cheese, bread, slice. Next.” She also sighs more than usual and seems to have trouble breathing a lot of the time. She is angst ridden to say the least.
Throughout the story both characters discover secrets, both about themselves (as Fergus does as his memory slowly returns) and their complex relationships. The marbles are the catalyst and represent memory, love and forgiveness.
The characters in this novel are complex individuals trying to find their place in this world. They are searching amongst memories and the past to reconcile themselves to the present. The author plays brilliantly with imagery, metaphor and symbolism which give this novel its richness and depth.
There are some exquisitely sad moments in the novel. After reading a very touching scene between Hamish and Fergus, I realize my cheeks are wet with tears. Fergus tells Hamish about Father Murphy beating him and Hamish comforts his young brother, while they talk about marbles and their own father (who died when Fergus was very young.) Hamish says he and Fergus are now “partners in marble crime.”
I also loved the quirky humour in the novel. When Sabrina is discussing how she met her husband Aidan, we learn it was in Ibiza. They took part in a competition to see who could lick the most cream of a complete stranger’s torso. He was the torso, Sabrina was the licker. She then goes on to tell us how much they have both changed: “Aidan doesn’t even like the beach now, says the sand gets everywhere. And I’m trying to stay off dairy.”
I enjoyed this novel enormously. Moments of lightness contrast with episodes of darkness. The characters are rich and deeply complex and experience moments of intense sadness for time wasted, memories lost and hurts caused. Yet I think it is, above all, a novel about redemption – if we are courageous enough to face our past, it can open the door to a richer, freer and more rewarding life.
I am delighted to see ‘The Marble Collector’ has been nominated for an Irish book award in the popular fiction category. It is richly deserved.