Healing Through Stories
Carmen Marcus lives in the Victorian spa town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea. She is in much demand as a performance poet and has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall. Recently she has been commissioned by BBC Radio 3's Verb New Voices. How Saints Die is her first novel, and as a work in progress it won New Writing North's 'Northern Promise' Award. Ten year-old Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It's the 1980s and her mother's breakdown is discussed only in whispers. Steering by the light of her dad's sea-myths, her mum's memories of home across the water and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn - in these sudden, strange circumstances - who she is and what she can become. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Carmen introduces her novel and talks about the healing power of stories and the imagination.
It was the summer of 1984 and Lady Di was just about to marry my toy gorilla, Gogo. My mum was standing watching the rain and then she did something extraordinary. She put her hands through the glass of the back door. Then my dad grabbed Lady Di’s (Barbie’s) long wedding train (pillowcase) to bind my mum's wrists. Then the ambulance came and my mum was taken away and Di’s broken head was left on the floor.
Children don't have a word for ‘suicide attempt’ or ‘mental breakdown’. When an event like that detonates in your childhood there are so many aftershocks that ricochet throughout your life; so many choices that you can make, such as:
You can try to just keep growing up.
You can kiss the feet of brass-Jesus three times before you leave the house everyday to stop it from happening again.
You can get terrifying panic attacks at Mass and think it's because God blames you for your mother's illness.
You can become a school refuser because you're afraid to leave your mum at home, occasionally bunking off to the library for books and peace.
You can stop eating, like saints seeking redemption.
You can waste your love trying to redeem bad men.
You can go from a council estate to the University of St Andrews just to prove to them that you're not damaged. Look!
You can find yourself in the lovely Professor Douglas Dunn’s office as he recommends you read Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness because he has noticed, the whole brilliant department have noticed, that you are burning this incredible opportunity and they don't want to punish you, they want to help.
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.
My first novel HOW SAINTS DIE takes the reality of adult mental breakdown but generates an imagined world where that reality can be contained and transformed. As a lapsed Catholic I'm drawn to supernatural interventions but as a survivor I know that true transfiguration involves a hard-won sacrifice of innocence. For Ellie, my ten-year-old protagonist, she must follow and fail a number of fairy-tale-like tasks to try to fix her mother.
Her first task is to carry out the Irish ritual of lighting the Halloween light to guide the dead and gone home for one night. But like all good fairytale tasks, it goes bad - and instead of Granny, a wolf breaks into Ellie's world from the sea. This sets in motion the tension between the good, obedient and holy child and the wild, untamed free child; which will Ellie choose to become? Ellie knows holy, she knows that saints suffer and die but they can't explain how to suffer and survive.
Ellie’s folk-religious rite doesn't deliver another adult, even a dead one, or a saint. Instead she summons a wolf. It has claws and teeth and is better able to protect her from all she fears, including her mother. The wolf runs wild in the human imagination because it has the power to save or devour, and Ellie's wolf remains true to that uncertainty.
By creating this liminal ground between real and imagined; between faith and folklore I make a place which can fully explore a child’s experience of mental illness as a story she can rewrite and fix. 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.