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Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Long ago, before Covid (the pandemic as well as my own sad bout earlier this May), I read A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume and was very impressed. I reviewed it in May 2018 on this blog.

What impressed me was the close attention she gave to details of the local wildlife by a young woman struggling with life. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding Irish countryside, often finding dead wildlife, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. 

In Seven Steeples it is the slow deterioration of things which are catalogued.

Seven Steeples

A couple decide to live together, away from their friends, family, history, and the world in a house on the West Coast of Ireland. ‘Them in and the world out.’ They stay for 8 years. Gradually the couple become alike, and the text follows the disintegration of the house, their dogs and their separateness, the grounds of the house and its contents as they simply live.

At times I reacted against the pair, seeing them as without energy or determination (solutions to problems are usually to do nothing), unproductive, even pathetic. This is signalled by the failure of the couple to climb the mountain for seven years, from which they would be able to see seven steeples, among other sights. But the novel challenges dominant ideas about how we should live. This couple, Bell (Isobel) and Sigh (Simon) just exist within the context of very little action. They have no overarching purpose in their decision to live in this way for eight years, only a non-purpose. 

Neither had experienced any unusual unhappiness in early life, any notable trauma. Instead they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear. (17-18)

In an age when humans appear to have made irreversible damage to our natural world, it is interesting to contemplate how to live and make fewer traces. We must collect our benefits, pay our taxes, buy our food, repair our vans, and always dispose of unwanted material items. The experiences of Sigh and Bell contrast vividly with life as most of us live it.

It is difficult for humans not to leave some traces, and in any case the couple’s environment itself cannot help but alter the house and the landscape, the garden and the view. Most of the novel is a detailed description of the small, incremental alterations brought to their lives over the eight years. During this time both the dogs and the humans become interchangeable. 

The descriptions of the slow changes to their environment and their house were the main pleasures in reading this novel.

Red-hot pokers, which they had not planted, appeared in a clump at the end of the driveway – nine fireworks mounted atop the green trail of their ascent, nodding an ominous welcome.
The lilies, which they hadn’t planted either, bowed their discoloured bonnets and stuck out their bloated, orange tongues as a beacon to the hoverflies that crawled inside and supped the last of the lily juice. The cones had fantastic acoustics. A gentle, guzzling buzz became the chatter of a cassette player on fast-forward.
There was a sense of hysteria amongst the insects. (150)

The details in every paragraph are vibrant and telling.

By early autumn the house teemed with insects.
There were the moths that entered last thing at night and tucked themselves into the pockets of cardigans. There was an earwig Sigh carried around in his shoe for an entire day, unharmed, and a mosquito that ravaged Bell in her sleep, a dozen bites from scalp to crotch. There was a posse of fruit flies suspended above the compost bucket like fat dots of floating, vibrating dust. There was a black slug the size of a mouse that criss-crossed the kitchen rug at night, the streak of its slime tracing the outlines of the imitation oriental symbols: a star, the tree of life.
What we need, Sigh said, is a kitchen hedgehog. (156)

There is very little story here, which will not please many readers. Instead Sara Baume gives us a very close look at how insects, plants, weather and so forth interact on human lives, and what happens when the humans do not resist. It’s very strange and very powerful.

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, published in 2022 by Tramp Press. 254pp

JacquiWine’s review on her blog drew my attention to this novel. You can find her review here from February 2023, in which she describes 

a beautifully-crafted story of withdrawal from conventional society for the peace of a minimalist existence. Alongside this central theme, the novel has much to say about the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, reviewed on Bookword blog in May 2018. 

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A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

A Line Made by Walking is about the pain of being alive. I quote from the blurb. Frankie’s pain comes from not yet knowing how to be alive. She is in her mid-twenties, and struggling with expectations: to have achieved specialist knowledge, a career path, social connections, a partner, and having left a loving family.

Frankie’s troubles are (I’m quoting from the blurb again) absorbing, heart-wrenchingly real, painful, raw, compelling, poignant … But she never quite loses the ability to observe and reflect on her own suffering, and eventually to take the line that will help her escape.

Sara Baume’s writing achieves its impact through plenty of self-absorption by Frankie but no self-pity; observations that strike hard but provide no winsome lessons from suffering; lots of nature but much of it known through corpses.

A Line Made by Walking

Frankie is 25, has been brought up in Ireland, studied at Art College in Dublin and then worked in an art gallery in the city. One day she decides she can no longer do it and so packs her bags, calls her mother and goes home. Calling her mother is a bit of a theme.

After a couple of weeks with her parents she arranges to live on her own in her grandmother’s bungalow, believing that the solitary life will restore her ability to be alive. Writing in the first person, Frankie describes her everyday life, not quite coping, isolated, outside relationships. She meets the neighbour, a lonely old man called Jinks, who tries to help her find the Lord. And her family call in to check on her, and to maintain the bungalow as Frankie neglects it. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding countryside, often finding dead wild life, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. There are photographs in the relevant chapters.

Interspersed with the dead animals are flashbacks to her earlier life, and to her recollections of art works (painting, installations, performance pieces) that relate to or explain her situation.

Works about Lower, Slower Views, I test myself: Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass. Long doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which he walks, but sometimes he builds sculptures from materials supplied by chance. Then he leaves them behind to fall apart. He specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do as little damage. (261-2)

This is the pattern for the many paragraphs referring to works of art and they occur throughout. She is especially interested in installations, performance pieces and other creations, such as Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, which I think of as the exploded shed. She is interested in works that record repetition, physical feats that are interrupted before they finish. Often the concept in the mind of the creator seems more important than the experience of viewing the art work. There is an appendix that references them all.

But take a look again at what Frankie says about Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking. The repetition is there, ‘footsteps back and forth’. I rewrite it to make clear Frankie’s frame of mind:

Frankie doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which she walks, but sometimes she imagines sculptures built from materials supplied by chance. She specialises in being barely-there. She takes take up as little space in the world as possible. And does as little damage …

Her reflections on life, not just her own life, cut very close to the bone. Here’s a section that jumped out at me.

The point of being here, alone in the bungalow on turbine hill is to recover. This is what I told my mother before she agreed to let me care take, and the only thing I can do to stop her from worrying is to try and look well when she comes to visit. Because she cannot see inside my head, outside my head I must be nourished and calm and bright. The straightforwardness of this comforts me: body over brain.

With only a poorly stocked village shop, the absence of choice is liberating. I buy whatever they have and challenge myself to cobble it into something. Here on turbine hill, meals are the only thing that structure my days so I force myself to maintain their pattern. Because structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli, are what sanity consists of. (32-33)

I find that final sentence comforting. May be all that many of us are doing is achieving a basic level of ‘structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli’ and we can hold on to the idea that these are what sanity consists of.

I was just wishing Sara Baume would get on with it, get Frankie’s story to the end – there weren’t many pages to go – when, without calling her mother, she did and wooomph, Frankie spread her wings (compare to dead robin), leapt away (cf dead hare) abandons subterfuge (ditto fox, crow etc) … and that’s all I’ll say.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, published by Windmill Books (Penguin) in 2017. 307pp. Short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

Sara Baume’s previous novel was Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), which won many prizes.

Related links

Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, 1967, Tate Gallery. That image can be accessed here.

Lonesome Reader reviewed A Line Made by Walking on her blog in February last year. She focuses on the place of art in life, and Frankie’s belief in the redeeming value of art over institutionalised belief systems. You can read it here.

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