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.
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.