Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sara Baume, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Seven Steeples’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tramp Press; 288 pages; 2022.

The rhythms of nature and the passing of time are the central themes in Sara Baume’s latest novel Seven Steeples.

Set over the course of seven years, it tells the quiet, contemplative story of Bell (Isabel) and Sigh (Simon), who both ditch their menial city jobs — Bell waiting tables, Sigh packaging TVs in a factory — to move into a rental house, “a drab, roofed box girdled by countryside” at the bottom of a mountain.

They bring their two dogs — Pip, a lurcher, and Voss, a terrier — with them and live a simple life supported by social welfare payments and dwindling savings.

After the excitement of moving in together for the first time (the pair met at a party), taking minimal furniture and an odd assortment of belongings with them, their lives quickly settle into a routine. Morning walks. Trips to the nearest town for supplies. The occasional spot of gardening.

A quiet, misanthropic life

Their nearest neighbour, a farmer, has a nodding acquaintance with them, but for the most part, they keep themselves to themselves. They make no friends and they deliberately cut ties with everyone they know in the city.

Four years and seven months passed without a single visitor.

And as time passes, they carry next to no upkeep on the house, whether inside or out, and it slowly begins to fall into ruin — but they don’t care:

They had grown accustomed to disrepair.

Their lives become reduced to a 20km radius of the lichen-encrusted house and they have little interest in the outside world. They demonstrate an alarming lack of curiosity about anything. It takes them three whole years before they wonder about the mountain, the only thing that never changes, behind them.

The landlord was called to unblock the drain. He came armed with rods and rubber gloves. As he crouched on the gravel to rummage and bail, Sigh finally remembered to ask him about the mountain – whether or not it was commonage, and if there was a path all the way to the top. Yes and yes, he told them, though it was probably overgrown because nobody went up there. The mouth of the path was through the farmer’s yard behind the milking parlour and he himself had never climbed it, though for a long time he had been meaning to. […] They say there is a wild goat who lives up there, the landlord said, the last surviving member of an indigenous flock. They say that from the top, the landlord said, you can see seven standing stones, seven schools, and seven steeples.

By the time the seventh year swings around — measured in the passing of seasons, all forensically described in Baume’s careful but elegantly detailed prose — they’ve worked up enough wherewithal to climb it. And when they do, they see a whole new perspective on the world below and make a surprising observation about their own, closely entwined relationship.

Exquisite prose

Something about Seven Steeples didn’t entirely work for me. There’s no dialogue, no plot and the characters are aloof, perhaps because there’s no interior life and we don’t ever get to know what they’re thinking or feeling.

And while the prose is exquisite, particularly in the way Baume chronicles the weather, the passing seasons, the plant life and the animals that inhabit the countryside, there’s far too much exposition. I quickly grew bored of Bell and Sigh’s life, their passivity and their inability to follow through on the things they realised needed to be done or addressed.

However, as an exploration of hearth and home, Seven Steeples offers us a glimpse of an alternative lifestyle, one in which the busyness of the modern world is rejected and the rawness of the natural one is embraced.

For other takes on this novel, please see Claire’s review at Word by Word and Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.

The book has just been shortlisted for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made by Walking, both of which I loved.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

22 thoughts on “‘Seven Steeples’ by Sara Baume”

    1. Well, I absolutely loved her previous two novels and can see recurrent themes in her work which I like and her descriptions of the Irish countryside are WONDERFUL but this one didn’t sustain my interest. I wonder if it might have made a better short story or a novella …?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m also a fan of Sara Baume’s work (I LOVED ‘handiwork’) but also found this tedious, the drifting through life very much replicated via a slow narrative. It’s well crafted, well written & I get that it was relaying a mood, just not a mood I wanted to be in!!! Glad another reader felt similarly.


    1. I haven’t read Handiwork but have heard good things about it. I have to be in the right mood to read non-fiction but I’ll get to it eventually. Yea, this was too slow, which I understand is the point, but like you say if you’re not in the right frame of mind it becomes tedious.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I suspect I’d have a similar reaction., Kim. I did not get in with A Line Made by Walking. Although Baume is very talented.


    1. Oh, I loved A Line Made By Walking as I’m quite partial to novels about art. But looking back I can see similar themes which are also present in this new novel such as rhythms of Nature, the countryside, houses falling into disrepair and being a recluse.


      1. Funny, that second novel by Baume got on my nerves so much I had to stop halfway through. I like novels on art, but that one somehow felt like reading someone young and talented whose every thought is meant to be fascinating. I was bored and annoyed by it. Yet I know others I admire who have loved it!


        1. Lol. It does fit into the category of “messed up young woman being sad” of which dozens and dozens seem to have been published in recent years. I’ve read my fair share of them but not keen to read any more!


  3. I know there are novels where nothing happens, but this one seems extreme (to the point of mental illness really).
    You don’t mention in your review the nationality of the author, the protagonists, and the setting (I’m guessing they’re all Irish). It would seem to indicate that we read differently.


    1. Lol. Well a lot does happen… there are storms, they repot their plants, the gutter falls off … but it’s just not very interesting. And yea, this is Irish… I just didn’t flag because, to be honest, the story is universal and could, in fact, be set anywhere that has mountains, sea and dairy farms!


  4. Yes, I think I’m in a broadly similar place to you on this one, Kim. I loved the prose – as you say, it’s exquisite, and the depictions of the natural world are beautiful, albeit a little repetitive after a while. But I felt distanced from the characters. A book I admired rather than loved. Her other books sound great though, so I’ll probably pick one up at some point!


  5. I think I will enjoy Baume’s work more as she keeps growing. I had to put down A Line Made By Walking halfway through. I had one other friend who had a similar reaction. Others are full of praise for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have now read a couple of reviews of this novel. I think you’ve convinced me to add it to my list to buy. I love the sound of the story being rooted in nature across several years.


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