Ellie lives by the sea in a crumbling shack of a house barely held together by her father whilst her mother is in hospital suffering a breakdown. From the outset of the story it would be hard not to empathise with Ellie, a young girl with a vivid imagination and a temperament that many of her fellow villagers consider wild.
Ellie has a great relationship with her father who really seems to understand her nature and fuels her imagination with his vibrant stories. Ellie tells us that her mother is equally creative and when she suffered her breakdown told Ellie that the ghosts have to be tricked before she can return home. This puts too much pressure on Ellie’s already vivid imagination and she struggles to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t. Ellie begins to think that the sea calls her and wolves follow her – trying to take her mother further away from her. She’s walking a tightrope between reality and delusion. Her school friends think she is mad, all but one good friend who understands her and sticks with her no matter how wild and unkind she becomes.
The story is mainly told through Ellie’s voice but now and again the voices of her mother or social care worker interject to give an alternative opinion on events. It’s a truly gorgeous story that holds echoes of Helen Dunmore’s Ingo, and is an equally great coming of age story as Ellie has to battle against her own demons as well as her mothers. Ellie is portrayed as an incredibly brave child. I really felt the book depicted the failings in the social welfare and education systems perfectly, as well as giving a real insight into how a child living with a parent with mental illness views the outside world and the cruel prejudices they face.
It isn’t just the realism of this story that’s so gripping though; the real beauty of the novel lies in the storytelling. There is no doubt that Carmen Marcus’ work as a poet has shaped and honed her prose to perfection. The novel is full of wonderful domestic imagery and incredibly intense scenic descriptions, acute character observations and crisp crackling dialogue. The things that really made this book work for me though were the precise observations of the bonds of family and friendship, and the demonstrations of how the more these fragile, delicate bonds are tested, the more resilient and unbreakable they can become.
How Saints Die was published by Harvill Secker on 13 July 2017