Matthew Ryan considers the novels of Sara Baume
From her first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Sara Baume established a concern with social isolation. Baume returns to this in her subsequent novels, A Line Made by Walking and Seven Steeples, where solitary figures negotiate their remoteness. They are prompted to form precarious and precious micro-communities. Hope survives – just.
In Spill Simmer Falter Wither, a man befriends an unloved dog and must leave the only home he has known to live in his car. Together, they move through the year (the title is a skewed four seasons) as they travel through the countryside, like one of Samuel Beckett’s vulnerable pairings. These improvised homes, formed in loss and contingency, have become Baume’s territory.
Baume’s second novel, A Line Made by Walking, opens with the narrator, Frankie, contemplating a news item about the discovery of a community in the Amazon rainforest, reported as “the last uncontacted tribe”. Frankie wonders at it: “What a thing … that there are still. People. Out there.” Frankie, a twenty-something Irish woman, remains largely solitary, so people and society remain “out there” for much of the novel.
A Line Made by Walking reverses a common narrative arrangement, in which a country youth is overtaken by an adult life in the city. Frankie, instead, moves from the city to the country, from peripheral employment in the Arts in Dublin to a lonely psychological crisis in the bungalow of her recently deceased grandmother, somewhere in Ireland’s rural midlands.
An Art college graduate - depressed and underemployed - Frankie has almost given up on the possibility of a career as an artist. Simultaneously, she grieves a lost future and the loss of her grandmother. The novel is organised around her slow confrontation with the materiality of death and the complexity of grief. Indeed, in an ad hoc art project, she photographs the small animals she finds dead by the side of the road – winding the presence of death into her days at the cottage. This provides a structure for the novel, with chapters titled for each animal image: Robin, Rabbit, Rat etc.
This small project is echoed by Frankie’s consistent references to artworks of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These are called to mind as ‘tests’ of her memory, associated with sensations or events she comes across: “works about running”, “works about the marvellous”, “works about trees”. Her self-tests on art history allow Frankie to abstract away from the mundane dissolution in which she is steeped. But the loose traditions of postmodern art practice do not offer the kind of conceptual order or shelter that might have been drawn from the modernisms of the early twentieth century. Instead, these tests sit mostly as non sequitur pastiche within the text.
Frankie is haunted by the dislocation that George Lukacs claimed haunts the novel form, as an art of “transcendental homelessness”. Neither the nostalgia of the grandmother’s house nor the abstractions of art will provide Frankie a home that counters the instability of the world. Instead, the relations to the nonhuman world appear to be the only way forward. Their specificity is grounding. The novel ends by connecting Frankie’s final test – “works about trees” – to the now fallen tree that neighboured her grandmother’s house. It concludes with a coherent artistic statement of human vulnerability:
The oaks which grow. The stones which don’t.
Art, and sadness, which last forever.
This kind of poetic voice, threaded through A Line Made by Walking, is prominent in Baume’s latest novel, Seven Steeples. Stepping off from those final lines of her previous novel, we can see their concern with what endures and what changes, as the substance of Baume’s latest. Again, we are offered a story of isolation.
A couple, Bell and Sigh, leave their Dublin lives behind and move to a ramshackle house at the foot of a coastal mountain. Early, we are told by a distant omniscient narrator, “Bell and Sigh were curious to see what would happen when two solitary misanthropes tried to live together.” They lose track of friends and family and retreat into the rhythms of their household and those of the land.
Like Baume’s first novel, the community of dogs is significant. The dogs, Pip and Voss, are more developed, in terms of usual novelistic conventions like characterisation, than Bell and Sigh. Seven Steeples is resolutely exterior in its concerns. All the things a liberal-minded reader might want from a character – interiority, individuality, growth – are denied here. Bell and Sigh’s experiment is also an experiment in the components of novel and narrative.
The story emphasises time but limits the usual narrative procession through place and event. The house and its surrounds are an almost exclusive setting. So, quiet domestic events – preparing meals, walking dogs, whiskey in the evening – are the focus, while the larger and quieter seasonal events roll by outside. In this novel, you can almost hear the Earth turning.
Seven Steeples is a novel devoted to being in time. This has the effect of bringing place into close detail. Sigh and Bell notice the changing nature of the things that surround them. The mountain changes colour, a black plastic bag snagged on a fence degrades slowly, the house shifts in the wind. The novel is an inventory of a particular place in time:
There would be so much more.
And they would see it as soon as practically nothing
had continued to happen
for a slightly longer time
This attempt to incorporate time (registered even at the level of the sentence with gaps and breaks) and its consequent micro-focus on place is like that achieved in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond or Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. And these recent excursions into textual time each might owe something to John McGahern’s final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. McGahern’s emplacement of time offers a human dialogue with the seasons of life and death and a site where the competing time of modernity does not always overwhelm the times of its non-modern others.
Seven Steeples offers a similar refuge from the prevailing image of time as something to be journeyed through. Bell, Sigh, Voss and Pip, the mountain, and the mouldering house, coincide in time. This small-scale community enacts mutual, coincident, relational being. It’s rare to have time to see that.