Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

13 thoughts on “‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume”

  1. I read this in December 2017 and according to Goodreads I gave it 4 stars so I must have liked it quite a bit. But, even after reading your review, I have absolutely no memory of the book at all. Odd how some books that I read 20 or 25 years ago I can recall in vivid detail, and yet others are forgotten within a few months!

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    1. It’s probably because not much really happens in it… there’s next to no plot or big event… there’s hardly any characters in it to recall either. It’s mainly interior monologue, so I could understand why this one might not stick.

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    1. Yes, I put a link to Spill Simmer at the end of this review. It’s a standout read. More powerful than this one, I think, but there are similar themes re: nature and not fitting in.

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  2. I’m really looking forward to reading this one, I first encountered her work last work with her wonderful nonfiction work Handiwork and then went on to read Spill Simmer Wither Falter and it took me a while to accept the protagonist because I felt like I was in some sense still reading a nonfiction account! I love her writing and the place of art/craft within it.

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    1. Just finished reading this and absolutely loved it, I read both her novels this year, after starting with her nonfiction title mentioned above, and I must say I think she may be one of my favourite writers now. Looking forward to Seven Steeples that will be published in April 2022. I do think encountering her narrative nonfiction first has had a significant effect on the way her fiction is received.

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  3. I’ve just finished reading Gail Jones’ Our Shadows (no review just yet) and am struck by that brief allusion to this character finding it unfulfilling to work as a gallery attendant. It sounds great, to someone who wants a career in the arts, but (says Jones) no matter how wonderful the art, seeing it there every day makes it wear thin. I was reminded of the bored gallery attendants I’ve seen in iconic European museums, and now I feel sorry for hem!

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    1. Personally I could not think of a more boring job. Anything that involves sitting / standing still and not being creative in some way would be the death of me. I once did 6 months on a monthly magazine as an acting production editor and for three weeks a month I would have nothing to do while the last week of the month was crazy-busy putting everything to press. I hated it. The boredom in the three weeks killed me. (Needless to say when I finished my 6 month contract and they offered me the role full time, I turned it down.)

      Looking forward to reading your review…

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      1. I would hate that too, but even more, I would hate the slow death of delight in the art work. When I’m in front of a great piece of art, my heart beats faster, my brain is in overdrive and I am saving the experience to my mental hard-drive so that I can retrieve the wonder of it any time I like. To lose that, to be bored by a wonderful piece of art would be like failing to be moved by a beautiful piece of music.

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