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.

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.

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

‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume


Fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 215 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher. (Please note this book has also been published by Windmill Books.)

Earlier this year I read the 2015 Giller Prize-winning Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis and I thought that may well put me off reading anything about fictional canines ever again. And then I picked up Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither — which had been sitting on my bedside table since February — and I had to reassess my prejudice against dogs in literature, for in this beautifully written debut novel we follow the up-and-down relationship between one man and his dog, and it is truly an impressive achievement.

Man and dog

Split into four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title — the book charts a year in the life of 57-year-old Ray, a social misfit, who buys a rescue dog — “a vicious little bugger” but a “good ratter, alright” — with one eye whom he dubs, appropriately,  “One Eye”:

You’re all on your own in a solitary confinement kennel by the recycling bins. […] You growl as the kennel keeper grabs you by the scruff and buckles the collar, but you don’t snap. And when you walk, there’s no violence, no malice in the way you move. There’s nothing of the pariah I expected. You are leaning now, nearly dragging your body along the ground, as though carrying a great lump of fear. ‘Easy now,’ the kennels keeper tells you. ‘Easy.’

Initially, Ray and One Eye take their time getting used to one another, but as the weeks and months unfurl a strange kind of companionship ensues, and Ray, alone in the world for the first time after the recent death of his father, begins to find the courage to explore beyond the small, closeted domain he has inhabited his whole lonely life.

But Ray’s cautious baby steps into new territory beyond his local village brings him into conflict with other people, and when One Eye displays the viciousness which had once made him useful for badger baiting, Ray panics and goes on the run, taking his beloved dog with him…

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume Windmill Books edition

Loss and loneliness

This rather sad yet beautiful story is very much a portrait of loss and loneliness and the ways in which a loyal animal can bring joy and comfort into our lives. But it’s also a dark and disturbing look at what can happen to those people who fall through the cracks, who never fit in and are misjudged or cast out by society at large.

The writing is so eloquent and word-perfect, full of wonder and unexpected descriptions, especially of nature and the changing seasons, that it is an absolute delight to read from start to finish. And this is no mean feat given the narrative is written largely in the second person (Ray addresses everything to the dog) and in the present tense, which, in another writer’s hands, may have become tedious and wearing.

I was constantly surprised by the vividness of just the smallest detail, whether that be of Ray’s perplexed emotions or of the landscape he travels through, and I had to stop myself from underlining everything that resonated with me, otherwise, I would have underlined the whole damn book.

Here’s a  good example of how Baume paints an arresting picture of what Ray sees through the car window, for instance:

Interrupting the fields, there’s a golf course and a purposeless dispersal of bungalows. Barns, cars, bales and trees. Cows moving as imperceptibly as the hands of a clock, getting there without ever seeming to go. Now look out and see the ocean; the ocean’s interruptions. There’s a hunk of grassy rock all covered in cormorants. A lobster buoy. Sail boats very far away. A blue gallon drum, presumably attached to something beneath the surface. And a cargo ship passing a floating lighthouse on its way into harbour.

Shocking conclusion

Over the course of the novel, it’s rewarding to see shy, nervous, never-quite-sure-of-himself Ray forging a genuine friendship with One Eye, perhaps the first true friendship he’s ever experienced. There’s a quiet, unbridled joy in the storyline, but this is soon surpassed by an undercurrent of unease and menace, which leads the reader towards a rather shocking, my-goodness- I-didn’t-see-that-coming conclusion.

This is a truly memorable and haunting read, bringing to mind the likes of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy and Claire Keegan’s Antarctica, and marks Sara Baume as an exciting Irish talent to watch.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2015, long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award 2015 and was named Newcomer of the Year at the 2015 Irish Book Awards.