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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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