A fresh spy thriller

A fresh spy thriller

The Marble
Collector
Cecelia Ahern
Harper Collins
2015, pp 290, Rs 350

This book about a marble collector has got to be one of the most intriguing pieces of fiction. The author, Cecelia Ahern, best known for her books on family matters, has excelled herself in this one by picking on something as commonplace as the love of playing marbles and collecting them and turning it into a voyage of discovery.

It takes a while for the reader to realise that there are two voices operating in this novel, one of the marble-obsessed Fergus Boggs, and the other of Sabrina, his daughter. The narrative keeps shifting back and forth, as Sabrina sets out to solve the mystery of her father’s past, which he has successfully kept hidden from his wife, Gina, and daughter, all these years. Remarkably, the author is able to pull off the unfolding of the past events, all in the space of one night, guaranteeing the complete attention of the reader.

The story begins with Fergus needing special attention in a long-term care facility, after hospitalisation from a severe stroke. The stroke has also resulted in memory problems, to the great annoyance of his divorced wife, Gina, who says, “He gets to live like none of it happened, like he doesn’t have to feel guilty or apologise for anything.” What angers Gina is the fact that Fergus is loveable now, like the man that she had once married. Sabrina explains it best: “Dad is still alive and in fact what we lost was the other side of him, the distant, detached, sometimes prickly side of him… the one that wanted to be alone…”

When a set of boxes are delivered from Fergus’s solicitor to the hospital, Sabrina is surprised to find them filled with marbles accompanied by a detailed inventory on each of them, including their material worth. From here on starts the unravelling of the past, with some of the chapters being first person, Sabrina, whilst some others are first person, Fergus.

The author also makes some telling observations on memory when she says that they come in three categories, “things I want to forget, things I can’t forget, and things I forgot I’d forgotten until I remember them”. Also, for those who remember what others forget, this will resonate: “Sometimes it’s a curse; nobody likes it when there’s somebody to remember what they’ve tried so hard to bury.”

Ahern’s characters are all grey, but she winds up making us feel sorry for most of them; all creatures of circumstance, which have resulted in them becoming what they are. In the case of Fergus, marbles become his “allies”, to tide over a difficult part of his life and from then on become an obsession, which leads to subterfuge and the dissolution of a marriage.

Fergus’s growing up years, in an Irish family, is well-delineated, revealing the male bonding between the brothers, especially with his favourite brother, Hamish. The soft side of an otherwise strict Mammy is also touchingly brought out, as when she takes Fergus on her lap or becomes over-protective of one of his step-brothers. Heart-warming also is the part when the brothers gather after many years, at Fergus’s care facility and engage him in a game of marbles; old men bonding over shared memories. 

Ahern’s research on marbles provides such in-depth information and the poetic descriptions turn these balls of glass into something magical, which the cover page manages to pick up to a certain extent. There is a moment in the book when Fergus is tempted into buying a clear marble with a red heart inside, during his honeymoon. Here the author uses the symbolism of the marble to depict Fergus’s heart and his true self and the poignant rejection when Gina drops the marble by accident and “its surface is scratched, meaning it will never be a whole heart again”.

Most of all, it is in the characterisations and the observations on life that Cecilia truly excels. Sometimes these can be shockers as when Mammy gives Fergus two stinging slaps on his face and says, “You’re not him.” It takes a while for the reader to figure out what she is getting at.

But the story is equally about Sabrina, who is dealing with her own dilemmas, as she goes about trying to unearth her father’s unknown past. Cecilia makes the father’s and daughter’s stories intersect when Sabrina reaches a level of self-discovery. Whilst there are constant allusions to the moon and the way that it affects some people, the author chooses Sabrina to observe that “a new moon is a symbolic portal for new beginnings, believed by some to be the time to set up intentions, for things you’d like to create…” Certainly, this novel is a great way to start reading the works of Cecilia Ahern.

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