BOOK REVIEW: How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

The subjects of mental illness and madness have been extensively explored in literature. From Shakespeare’s haunted characters to Maupassant’s classic moonlight creepiness, from Du Maurier’s unsettling visions to Bulgakov’s flying pigs, from Kafka’s nightmarish awakening to Bronte’s hysteria. Not to forget Dostoyevsky’s feverish ramblings, Gogol’s greedy descent, Poe’s demented tales or Lem’s alternate worlds. And many, many more.

Alienation, delusion, nuttiness, madness, insanity, lunacy, hysteria. So many authors have tortured their characters over the centuries, as insanity is one of the most fascinating subjects in literature. With madness, instability or mental illness comes the “tipping point” at which one goes from being sane to being insane. The moment one’s life as they know it dissolves, its reality engulfed by the affliction they are suffering from.

And this tipping point, the moment when life changes suddenly and drastically, is what Marcus explores in ‘How Saints Die’. The book tells the story of ten-year old Ellie, the quirky, imaginative, no longer a baby but not quite a grown-up girl whose world is split between the Before and the After. The Before, only ever lightly mentioned, describes the time prior to her mum being “taken away” in order to recover from an affliction she isn’t mature enough to fully understand. The After is Ellie’s daily life, split between fishing with her father, wondering what happened to her mother and getting her head around the strange place she’s been taken to and trying to fit in at school where her brutally honest, detached and imaginative attitude is perceived as trouble by her teachers and isn’t understood by her peers.

“The pyjama people walk funny, with delicate slow movements, like walking on quicksand. Ellie has played quicksand by herself on the beach – slideslideslide then sink. There is a scrag-tag bird-man with berry black eyes. There is a young woman holding her hands like squirrel paws; if she fell she would not be able to stop herself. She is not going anywhere, she just walks into the corners then turns and turns. There is a man as fat as a baby siting cross-legged on the floor, and when the squirrel woman gets too close to him he throws his head back and shouts, ‘Nahnahnah’. It sounds like a baby noise, but from a man’s mouth it is hard, a stone of sound thrown in warning. Ellie sees his yellow-and-black teeth and thinks he might bite someone, ‘Nahnahnah’. No one tells him to get off the floor.”

The book revolves around Ellie’s inability to write a school assignment about her mother, resulting in her feeling of alienation, her mother being not only absent but initially perceived as a distant, detached character whose love for her daughter is fleeting. However, as the story unravels Ellie eventually finds things to say, as she grows up and understands her mother and the reasons behind her flickering mental health, and learns to cherish her quirks and talent as well as the traditions that renders her and her family unique.

While her mother is away, Ellie lives alone with her father, the tight bond between them only ever affected when her father – an older parent, especially to the 1980s standards – suffers from bouts of paralysis and vertigo, leaving Ellie to summon her imaginary pet wolf that helps her cope with her struggles. Ellie’s father is the only person that understands her fully, accepts her the way she is, and never questions, only advises. Ellie’s father’s love for his wife and daughter is unconditional, undissolved, raw. His enduring of his wife’s condition makes the depicting of his own secondary until the final chapters. Ellie’s mother’s mental illness is slowly replaced by her father’s physical ailment.

Charles de Gaulle once famously said “old age is a shipwreck.” This is certainly true in this book, beautifully sketching the decrepitude of her father’s boat alongside the weakening of the man. Peter’s premature weakening is due more to his illness than his age but the end result is the same – he can see his physical abilities decreasing, contributing to the chaos surrounding his family life.

“He tries to right himself but he can’t pull himself level. Ellie’s seen it before, he panic. The live fish slapping on the big wooden board, slapping their tails just for the hope of water; to them the shy had looked so clean and cool and kind-letting birds ride the arc of its belly. At night, it would close its vast blue eye and rest and the fish would come to the surface to kiss the stars. That was her dad now. He needed the weight of water to hold him still, like the upside-down of her story.

-Tell me my story.

Her dad’s hands close gently on her shoulders and there it is between them, the current.

-Where do I come from?
-Hush pet, let me keep still.
-Tell me my story.
-All right. You come from the sea.
-I pulled you up in my nets. And I cut you out. I cut through the net holding you. You were blue like a porpoise. I held you. I gave you your first breath.”

What make’s Marcus’s book remarkable is not only the numerous strong characters and their beautiful emergence throughout the book – light sketches turning into strong paintings – but also the multiple tipping points at which their lives suddenly comes to a definite changing moment. This gives the book its dramatic intensity.

What this talented author manages to do, juggling so many dramatic moments, is never fall into the melodramatic, the far-fetched or the weepy. And when one does shed a few tears (and one will) they are as much in empathy for Ellie and her rough ride, as well as for oneself and the realisation that life is ever so fragile and intangible.



Carmen lives and writes in the Victorian Spa town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea.  As the daughter of an Irish mother and Yorkshire fisherman her writing pulls together the magical and the practical, the lyrical and the brutal.  Her debut novel ‘How Saints Die’ portrays adult mental breakdown through the eyes of a child, it celebrates the resilience of imagination and won New Writing North’s Northern Promise Award 2012.  She writes poetry for page and performance.  She has written and performed as an atomic bomb, a Mouse Organ mouse and a medieval bra.  Her writing has been described as ‘crackling dangerously with inherited magic yet achieving contemporary vitality’.  Carmen has been commissioned by and performed at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of the ‘Festival of Neighbourhood’ and ‘Pull Out All the Stops’ festivals.  Carmen has also performed at the Newcastle leg of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Architects of Our Republic Tour’ at Live Theatre.

Carmen is currently working on numerous projects including BBC Radio 3’s Verb New Voices commission with her project ‘The Book of Godless Verse.’

Carmen has an MA in English Literature and Language from the University of St Andrews. Her work can be described as fairytales with their teeth intact and in the words of her original critic and primary school teacher ‘weird, minus one house-point’.

How Saints Die is available to purchase from Penguin here and was published by Harvill Secker on the 13th July 2017.

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Reviewed by Barbara F. Jones





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