Much like its protagonist Scarlett, SACRED is a novel that seems confused about what, exactly, it wants to be. Its plot is a mélange of love, grief and high school drama with a smidge of the supernatural thrown in for taste. Unfortunately, that peppering of supernatural makes what would be a balanced, nuanced portrait of a high school girl grieving her older brother’s sudden death go down a little funny. However, the care with which Elana K. Arnold writes about Scarlett’s fragile mental health and the way in which her loss affects her relationships with her friends and family makes up for the slightly forced mystical powers Arnold bestows upon Scarlett’s love interest, Will.
"SACRED follows Scarlett as she struggles to put the fragments of her life back together, discarding those that don’t fit and adding new ones along the way."
When the novel opens, Scarlett’s brother Ronny has been dead for about three months, and she, her mother and her father have been dealing with their grief in very different ways. Her mother has developed a dependency on sleeping medication; her father has been trying, and failing, to keep a sense of normalcy in their house; and Scarlett’s overwhelming sadness has taken a major toll on her mental and physical health, so much so that her love interest Will refers to her body as a “crime scene.” Though the reader knows that what Scarlett is doing to herself is not healthy, Arnold’s writing allows us to empathize with her anguish. In dealing with death, something that most people are almost always powerless to stop, Scarlett seeks control. The way that need for control manifests itself is unhealthy and unsustainable, but it is nonetheless understandable. What is also understandable is the way Scarlett initially falls back into old patterns with her friends, including getting back together with her ex-boyfriend, to either prove to those around her that she is the same person she has always been, even though she knows inside that she is not.
Enter Will, a newcomer to Scarlett’s small island town who sees through her in ways the people she has known her whole life cannot. He winds up being the person who helps her begin to heal. Though the reason he can see her suffering has to do with the supernatural elements that seem out of place in this novel, what is great about this plot is that he does not save her so much as inspire her to save herself. This allows Scarlett to retain her agency as a character and makes the paranormal subplot easier to swallow. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Scarlett’s best friend, Phoebe. Though she has shades of the wacky, overconfident “best friend” character so common in many YA novels and most big screen comedies, her devotion to and concern for Scarlett make her the most relatable character in SACRED.
Loss has shattered Scarlett’s life into a million pieces and has irrevocably changed her, her mother and her father, both as individuals and as a family. SACRED follows Scarlett as she struggles to put the fragments of her life back together, discarding those that don’t fit and adding new ones along the way. It is Scarlett’s journey back to herself, her family and true friends that helps SACRED rise above its contrived supernatural subplot and makes it a compelling read.
Reviewed by Erin Allen on November 16, 2012