How Saints Die – Carmen Marcus

“If you take life from the sea you offer your own life in exchange. She can take you. Any time she wants. She’ll call you to her and you’ll go like it’s home and not struggle.”

How Saints Die tells the story of ten year old Ellie, who lives with her fisherman father on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It is the 1980s, a time that means her mother’s breakdown is only discussed in whispers. As Ellie is guided by her father’s sea-myths, her mother’s memories of home across the water and her own fierce spirit, Ellie begins to learn who she is and what she can become. Soon her innocence has been shed, but at a great cost…

“Books had rescued me long before this moment but this was the first time I’d ever been prescribed one. So it was inevitable really that the way to finally understand that moment – that break where my childhood ended so abruptly – would involve a book.” – Carmen Marcus

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, How Saints Die is a book about mental illness, childhood friendship and the bonds between family. It is a book that resonated deeply with me for personal reasons. While the circumstances were completely different, the parallel of being that age during that time with a single father household was uncanny. I found myself empathising and identifying with Ellie, who was viewed as odd and an outsider, and becomes thrust into a world of adult responsibilities. Feeling so connected with the story and the central character completely elevated the book for me, particularly after reading the personal note from author Carmen Marcus at the end of the book.

“In reality, a child is powerless to change anything; decisions are made without consent, questions are met with silence and yet none of this insulates the child from the trauma. As with my own childhood, and now as a writer, it’s imagination that saves and compensates for Ellie’s inability to understand or control the adult world. In the real world, Ellie is suffocated by diagnostic labels like ‘damaged’ or ‘at risk’ and trapped by the official story recommending ‘intervention’. Imagination is Ellie’s only form of resistance and so I’ve made a world out-of-bounds where she can run with her own story.” – Carmen Marcus

I was recently part of a book tour for How Saints Die and I’m so grateful to Vintage Books for including me in the tour, as it’s a book that I may never have gotten to read otherwise. It’s a book that has lingered on my mind and will continue to stay with me. Carmen Marcus has a beautiful style of writing and really captures the character of Ellie in such a way that is both heart wrenching and immersive. The book has an ethereal magical element within the story and is evocative of classic fairy tales. It is a fantastic debut from Carmen Marcus and a unique book that tackles difficult topics, as well as being a compelling and haunting story.

Have you ever connected with a book, character or film in such a personal way?

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