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How Saints Die – Carmen Marcus

By Hannah M Smith, on 25 April 2018

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018

A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.

Carmen Marcus’s semi-autobiographical debut follows ten year old Ellie Fleck, a fisherman’s daughter growing up on the Yorkshire Coast. Ellie doesn’t understand why her mother has disappeared, but finds comfort in the stories that her father tells her of sea-gods and the ocean. As the world around her becomes ever more strange and uncertain, the lines between the real and the unreal begin to blur.

Ellie is a deeply compelling, delightfully strange child with a wild imagination. Her voice is utterly unique; it comes as no surprise to learn that Marcus is an acclaimed poet. Her use of sound and rhythm creates a stream-of-consciousness narrative which carries the reader along like a current. The author is at her strongest when she evokes the world of Ellie’s childhood, using incisive details like the netting needles that “hang like wooden fish from the wall” of her father’s Baithouse. Her characterisation of the ocean itself is complex and affecting; its draw hangs over Ellie and her father throughout the novel. From the rituals and superstitions of fishing life to the atmosphere of a small, claustrophobic community, Marcus creates a setting that feels grounded and utterly real, with deep roots in personal experience.

The author also does an excellent job of developing the novel’s secondary characters. The narrative is primarily told in Ellie’s voice, but is interspersed with short chapters focused on her parents and other key adults in her life. Marcus deftly uses these instances to shine light on the depths and vulnerabilities of these individuals. While Ellie begins the novel as a child, over the course of the narrative she starts to glimpse her parents as the complex, damaged people that they are. While her prose may be lyrical, Marcus does not shy away from the difficult and often brutal experience of growing up. Ellie’s struggles at school will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.

One of the most innovative features of the book is Marcus’s use of magical realism to explore societal perceptions of delusion and mental illness, although I would have liked to have seen this integrated from an earlier stage. The novel occasionally struggles with pacing: at points, the plot veers between sluggish and hurried. However, this is compensated for by Marcus’s expertly written prose and beautiful world-building. How Saints Die is not a novel to be devoured in one sitting — it should be savoured and lingered over.

Overall, Carmen Marcus has written beautifully evocative exploration of mental illness, alienation and belonging through the eyes of a child. The characters and stories within it will cling to you like sea salt on your lips.

Ciara Corrigan

How Saints Die is published by Harvill Secker

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