In some fantasy novels--like each of The Chronicles of Narnia--the protagonists pass from a less than ideal situation in this world to a place of beauty and adventure. In others (think Coraline) a character's escape from reality leads into a kind of hell, leaving character and reader to the conclusion that regular reality is pretty nice after all. But in Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens, Jack passes back and forth between this world, which has become a kind of hell for him, to a fantastic world which is another kind of hell. In some ways the story comes down to which kind of hell Jack prefers.
Jack's life has never been ideal. He is the love child of a teenage romance, his young mother and father having disappeared from his life after Jack was born on his grandparents' kitchen floor. He's grown up resenting his absentee parents and indifferent to the grandparents who have raised him. By sixteen he has trouble fitting in, with only one close friend, Conner, who is everything that Jack isn't: popular, easy-going, sexual experienced.
Conner and Jack have summer plans to visit England for a number of weeks where they plan to check out a potential boarding school. At an end-of-the-school-year party a few days before Jack is about to leave, Jack makes a number of poor judgment calls, ends up passing out drunk in a park, and gets abducted by a man posing as a doctor trying to help him. The man, who calls himself Freddy Horvath, drugs Jack, tortures him and attempts to rape him. Jack manages to escape but, out of shame, tells no one, except Conner. As a direct consequence of the kidnapping, Jack's life goes form unfortunate to hellish.
Jack and Conner do manage to make it England. At a pub Jack meets an odd man that he's never seen before but who seems to know him. The man hands him a pair of glasses. Wearing the glasses takes Jack to "Marbury," a land of white sand and white sky which is in a state of holocaust caused by some sort of plague or disease. Bands of vicious primitive hunters chase down children. Giant black beetles swarm the land, cleaning up the remains of the dead. Ghosts haunt the survivors. Jack is still Jack in Marbury and many of the people in his other reality show up in different forms there as well. Jack must lead a small group of boys in an attempt to survive. He feels a tremendous responsibility to his friends in Marbury, and when he isn't there, he longs to return. The pull to Marbury is so strong that Jack begins to act like an addict, descending into a kind of madness where he can no longer tell what has been caused by his ordeal with Horvath or whether the effect of the glasses is genuine or something in his head.
The novel has a cyclical quality, bouncing between Marbury where the survival situation is worse every time we visit it and England where Jack grows further out of control. Smith is fond of refrains, perhaps overly so, reminding the reader, every few pages that Jack, no matter where he is, hasn't "escaped from anything." The effect is successful in the end. The reader finds himself routing for Jack, hoping he will get it together, recover from all of his traumas, and answer, finally, his increasingly desperate question: "what is real?"
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