Tag Archives: Ireland

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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The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Not having read My Name is Leon, I had no idea what to expect from The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal. I chose it because I had read nothing on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 long list and I recognised the author’s name. Indeed I have supported her Unbound project for an anthology of working class writers.

We follow the main character Mona in three timeframes. Mona is a child living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, then a young woman in Birmingham married to the man she loves, pregnant with their first child, and finally nearing her 60thbirthday living alone in a seaside town in the south of England. We learn that her life has been punctured by loss, most poignantly of her child, but also of her husband William, on the night of the Birmingham pub bomb.

The Trick to Time

Given that the reader must follow Mona in three timeframes it is helpful that her father gave her some sound advice about time early on. They are on the beach and he is trying to persuade Mona to spend more time with her mother before she dies.

One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

He stands up, brushes the sand from his trousers, and Mona jumps on his back for the ride home. He lollops over the dunes with her hands round his neck and her chest against his ribs.

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. (21)

In this novel the characters relate to time depending on where they are in life. The young woman who helps Mona in her shop has all the time in the world. Mona is approaching 60 and feels that time is no longer on her side so she must change things for the better before drifting further.

Birdie, a cousin of her mother’s, was in love with Mona’s father, and waited for him until Mona left for Birmingham. Time was cruel to her, taking the love of her life within the year.

Val was a student nurse who attended to Mona when her daughter was still born. It was Val who found the body and brought it to Mona to hold while the hospital was in uproar from the bombing. These hours with her daughter, Beatrice, allows Mona to grieve. Every year she visits Val and her daughter’s grave, marking the years since Beatrice was lost.

Time and loss are explored with great poignancy. Mona’s love of her husband William hangs over the decades of Mona’s life that follow his loss. Love is a great healer, but it is not omnipotent.

The characters are sustained by strong communal bonds throughout. The Irish have their family connections. After the dreadful night of the IRA bomb, Mona is cared for by William’s aunts and when she looses William as well she returns to her childhood home to the care of her cousin Bridie.

In Birmingham the Irish community is strongly connected, but this leads to bad feelings after the bomb attack. In her English seaside town Mona is loosely connected to her neighbours and to those whose work supports her doll business. Some connections endure for years, like Birdie’s for Mona’s father, or the affection between Val and Mona.

To help people with the loss of their child, Mona uses an imaginative technique, getting the parents to articulate the life that might have been, recreating the time that the child would have lived. In the end she receives comfort for her own losses in this way.

It is a moving and engaging novel.

Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal was born in 1960 and brought up in the Irish community of Birmingham, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Kit de Waal is her pen name. Her previous novel, My Name is Leonwas well received, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, and the Desmond Elliot Prize and winning the Kerry group Irish novel of the Year Award in 2017.

She has established a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London, to support writers from disadvantaged background. Another project is a collection of working class writing with Unbound, which she has edited, is called Common People: an anthology of working class writers.  It is due to be published in 2018. I am proud to have supported this initiative.

In April, The Trick to Timewas reviewed on Heavenali’s blog.

The Trick to Time was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal, published in 2018 by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books). 262pp

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Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I love to read a book that isn’t brash and that has something quiet to say. Nora Webster is such a read. The story moves steadily but without dramatic events, at the tempo of ordinary lives. The significant events are the daily interactions with neighbours and family, someone’s choice of words, the purchase of a recording, a short drive to the coast. This is the work of a writer who knows and understands the warp and weft of life.

195 Nora W coverThe story

The novel opens when Nora Webster has just been widowed and we follow her life over the next 3 years in Wexford, Ireland in the late 1960s as she moves through her grief.

Nora has four children: two young boys who live with her and two girls who are older and making their lives elsewhere. The death of Nora’s husband Maurice means she has to has to help her children with their grief as well as her own. She struggles to find what she wants from her life without her husband, and eventually without her four children as they grow up.

The novel shows us the important of small things as we see Nora almost knocked sideways by grief and the difficulties of raising the boys on her own. We enjoy her steely independence of spirit as well as the consistent if quiet support of her family. Her progress is gradual and there are set-backs. She is unable to prevent damage to her young boys and in some ways contributes to it for she does not invite conversation with those around her about the difficult things in life.

Driven by her circumstances to reconstruct her life she reluctantly embraces a return to work, new friendships, new projects, and repairs her connections with her family. She stands up for her sons in a manner that demonstrates her determination and her ability to take on the educational establishment in 1970s Wexford. By the quiet close of the novel you have come to realise that Nora was diminished in some respects by her marriage. Her spirit along with the passage of time and the needs of her sons has brought her to a new way of being Nora.

Nora

In Nora Colm Toibin has succeeded in creating an engaging character. She goes a long way not to offend her community, but increasingly undertakes small acts of resistance. We are introduced to her in this way.

‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could go back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house. (1)

From this opening paragraph we already understand a great deal about Nora’s character and that something has changed in her life that allows a man to shift his behaviour towards her. It establishes that the novel will deal with the changes she faces and how she navigates them and how she responds to people around her. Acutely conscious of her own discomfort, but also intensely private about her reactions, she is neither put down nor defeated.

In addition we can catch the Irish lilt, the intrusiveness of Tom O’Connor, and Nora’s apparent passivity. And the simple sentence ‘Nora closed the garden gate’ adds a small beat as we contemplate the scene, an everyday exchange between neighbours. The resistance to Tom O’Connor is slight, but such acts grow to include a misguided haircut and taking up singing.

Other things I liked

The quiet style of the writing matches Nora’s character. It means that the novel is compelling without it being a page-turner. Here is an example: Nora’s reflections on the different pace at which she and her sons are coming to terms with Maurice’s death.

She pictured the house, how strangely filled with absence it must be. She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her sense of watching every scene, every moment for signs of what was missing, or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years. (116)

While I wished that Nora would accept the support and help offered, her struggle with grief, with the enforced changes to her life, with making her own way is a very affirming story.

I enjoyed the themes of music in Nora’s life and photography in her son’s. Both come to these arts knowing little about them and with some perseverance both find their feet and new connections with others through their interest.

The novel has been well received: Nora Webster won the 2015 Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2014 and the 2015 Folio Prize.

There was an excellent review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times in October 2014.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (2014), published by Penguin 311pp

 

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