“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.”
Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck isn’t like the other children in her North Yorkshire town. The daughter of Pete, a grizzled fisherman, and Kate, an Irish Catholic woman who’s in a mental hospital after a presumed suicide attempt, Ellie was raised on stories of selkies and martyrdoms. Superstition infuses her daily life, making her afraid of pool trips with her classmates – it’s bad luck for fishermen to learn to swim – and leading her to expect her dead grandmother’s soul to waft in through an open window on Halloween night.
What with bullies’ beatings and her teacher Mr. Lockwood’s disapproval, it’s no wonder Ellie misses lots of school, going sea-coaling with her father or running off to the coast alone instead. But with Christmas approaching and Kate due home from the hospital, Ellie’s absences warrant an official visit. Social worker May Fletcher, the mother of Ellie’s new friend Fletch, is also concerned about Ellie’s home life. “How Saints Die,” Ellie and Fletch’s gruesome skit performed as an addendum to the school Nativity play, seems like proof that something is seriously wrong.
This is performance poet Carmen Marcus’s debut novel; from what I can tell it seems partially autobiographical. It powerfully conveys the pull of the sea and the isolation of an unconventional 1980s childhood. The dreamy, hypnotic prose alternates passages from Ellie’s perspective with shorter chapters from the points of view of the adults in her life, including her father, busybody neighbor Mrs. Forster, and May Fletcher. Marcus is equally skilled at the almost stream-of-consciousness passages describing Ellie’s trips to the sea and at humorous one-line descriptions:
Sand and salt in the cut, stinging. Her dad would know what to do. She wants him here, now, to show her. Without him the beach takes her up entirely, the shushshush of the sea and the coarse cackle of the waders at the waters-edge, creakcrackcreakcrackyawyaw; the wind tugging at the shell of her ear. All of it pulling, nipping, cutting at her – snipsnipsnip – and now blood, her edges ragged and wet.
Mrs Forster always smells faintly sweet and acidic like old Christmas cake.
– What are sins?
– They’re like germs but in your thoughts.
It’s easy to get lost in Ellie’s supernatural world of spirits and sea wolves, while the occasional outsider views make it clear just how dangerous some of her notions could be. Like Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human, this sets up an intriguing contrast between magic realism and madness. The language is full of transformations and fairy tale tropes. I was reminded at times of Amy Sackville’s Orkney and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. Although there is perhaps one perilous situation too many at the climax and the resolution is a bit drawn out (and there is also less punctuation than I would like), this is still a strong and absorbing first novel and one I fully expect to see on next year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
How Saints Die is published in the UK today, July 13th, by Harvill Secker. My thanks to Louise Court for sending a free copy for review.