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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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