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, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

Author, Book review, essays, Ian Maleney, Ireland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney

Non-fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 237 pages; 2019.

Minor Monuments is a collection of 12 elegantly written, highly personal essays by Ian Maleney, a journalist based in Dublin.

These thoughtful pieces are largely focused on the Irish Midlands, where Maleney grew up in an isolated rural farming community, and the ways in which his paternal grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease impacted his family.

There are common themes throughout — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Interestingly, Maleny studied sound engineering at university, so there is a continual focus on recording every day sounds — people talking, urban noise, crackling fires — and discovering “aural landscapes” in places where people are absent. He is interested in the idea that what we might hear isn’t necessarily what is picked up on a sound recording. Likewise, he believes it is the voice that brings a person “back to life” after they have died, perhaps because it is true and “honest”, not images of them in photographs.

I have always been more comfortable recording someone than taking their photo. To record someone’s voice, with or without permission, doesn’t really feel like stealing — it doesn’t feel like I’m taking anything from anyone, or putting anyone in a compromising position. If they know I’m doing it, I feel like they don’t act all that different, and neither do I.

Occasionally, the essays, such as “Machine learning”, about Hungarian professor John van Neumann’s research into mathematics, game theory, geometry and quantum mechanics (among other subjects), which then led him to collaborating with British mathematician Alan Turing on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, seems hugely out of place. But Maleney cleverly shows how this work is aligned with memory and the human brain, drawing links to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

I think he’s best, though, when writing about his own lived experiences, whether that be attending Seamus Heaney’s funeral (“A kind of closing cadence”) or his own grandfather’s wake (“See ye in church”). There are other essays about his grandmother succumbing to the flu (“pneumonia”), his first summer as an undergrad (“Season of migration”) and the love he has for his grandparent’s modest farm house (“Below”).

I like the way threads of an idea may reappear in later essays, giving the collection the feeling of unity and logic. Regardless, it’s clear that Maleney is a deep thinker, yet the prose, free from clutter, polished and simple, belies a mind hard at work. Yet it’s not heavy going: it feels almost effortlessly light — and there’s plenty of self-deprecating humour to soften the often sad subjects discussed here.

In essence, there’s nothing minor about Minor Monuments. I really loved it.


2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mike McCormack, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack

Solar Bones

Fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 224 pages; 2016.

On the face of it Solar Bones by Mike McCormack should not work. I can’t imagine how anyone would agree to publish a novel boiled down to two unescapable facts: the entire story is written stream of consciousness style and there’s not a single full-stop in more than 200 pages of prose.

What’s more it covers the unholy trinity of subjects polite people should never discuss at dinner parties: sex, religion and politics.

And yet there’s no denying this is a brilliant novel, a thrilling novel, a mesmerising, hypnotic novel. I read it enthralled by not only the beauty of the language, but the ways in which McCormack gets to the very heart of the extraordinary ordinariness of people’s lives, how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, and the ways in which our integrity, our moral goodness, is tested every day.

One man’s story

The book is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged man called Marcus Conway. He’s a civil engineer living in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland with his wife Mairead. They have two grown up children: Agnes, who’s making a name for herself as a performance artist, and Darragh, who’s travelling around Australia on an extended gap year.

The narrative charts Marcus’s train of thought as he stands in his kitchen listening to the Angelus bell…

      ringing out over its villages and townlands, over the fields and hills and bogs in between, six chimes of three across a minute and a half, a summons struck on the lip of the void which gathers this parish together through

all its primary and secondary roads with

all its schools and football pitches

 all its bridges and graveyards

all its shops and pubs

the builder’s yard and health clinic

the community centre

the water treatment plant and

the handball alley

the made world with

all the focal points around which a parish like this gathers itself as surely as

the world itself did at the beginning of time, through

mountains, rivers and lakes

As you can see from the above quote, the narrative reads like poetry in places, helped in part by the clever use of line breaks which helps guide the reader through the rhythm of this one-sentence novel, lending it a rather lovely musicality.

A surreal adventure through time

As we follow Marcus’s inner-most thoughts we get taken on a rather surreal adventure that includes everything from the ups and downs of raising a family to the difficulties associated with being an engineer working on important projects for which politicians take all the credit. There are poignant moments, comic episodes, angry outbursts, instances of shock, pride, awe, and the occasional wry observation.

This seamless narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, charts Marcus’s sometimes strained relationships with his children, his father, his sister and his wife. But there’s a refrain here: Marcus is constantly exploring what it is to be a good father, a good son, a good brother, a good husband. Even his career — or maybe especially his career — he is often tested by men who want to take short cuts, to flout the law, to ignore the long-term benefits in favour of the short-term.

And it is, indeed, this lack of accountability of those people in power (the novel is largely set during the boom years of the Celtic tiger) that results in the near hospitalisation of Marcus’s wife, Mairead, who succumbs to a dreadful illness caused by contamination of the local water supply. But, as the story draws to its final, shocking, conclusion, it is not Mairead that Marcus need be worried about…

Audacious and unforgettable

This is an audacious and unforgettable novel, perhaps my favourite read of 2017 so far.

Last year Solar Bones won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year. Next week, I suspect it will win a third accolade: the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

This is my 4th book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

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.