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.

Book lists

8 great novels written in the second person

Writing a novel using the second-person point of view — where the narrator tells the story to another character using the word “you” — is a difficult feat to pull off. In the wrong hands, it can feel tedious and wearing; in the right hands, it can elevate a novel into something really special, making you, the reader, feel implicated in the tale.

Over the years I’ve read several (mainly Irish) novels adopting this point of view — and they’ve all been exceptionally great tales.

Here is a list of books I have read that use the second-person point of view. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review.


‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

This debut novel from 2015 follows the up-and-down relationship between one man, a social misfit called Ray, and his rescue dog, whom he dubs “One Eye”, across four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title. Written in the present tense, with Ray addressing everything to the dog, it reveals how loss and loneliness can be alleviated by the love of a loyal pet. 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 sound of my voice
‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin

This five-star black comedy, first published in 1987 but reissued in 2018, is very much about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It is narrated by Morris Magellan, an executive in a biscuit factory, using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception. On the surface, it appears that Morris has it all, including an important job, a devoted wife, two children and a home of his own, but he’s a high-functioning alcoholic whose self-destructive behaviour is at odds with his own high opinion of himself.  The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses.


‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

This dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks, is about an illicit affair between a highly successful geneticist and a man she thinks might be a spy. When this exceptionally well-plotted story opens all we know is that the main character, Yvonne, is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What we don’t know is who she has murdered and why. The second-person voice that is employed conveys Yvonne’s constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this. It makes for a truly compelling read.

Montpelier Parade
‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Set in Dublin in the 1970s, this is an unconventional story about forbidden love, which is melancholy and bittersweet. Written entirely in the second person from a teenage boy’s perspective, it charts the relationship he has with a much older woman whom he rescues after a failed suicide attempt. As well as being about their illicit affair, the novel also explores class differences and what happens when others decide the path we should follow. Perfectly paced, it works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax. Expect to be devastated when you get to the end.

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

First published in 2009, this strangely haunting dystopian novel is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top-secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family, in danger. To protect her children from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read. It’s a tale that explores many issues, including science and religion, but its main theme is about the ability of humans to grow and change — for the better.


‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

This black comedy revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine; by night he’s out clubbing with his best friend, doing drugs and trying to hook up with women for one-night stands. The entire narrative — fast-paced and based on a series of set pieces — is told in the second person employing a voice that is, by turns, self-deprecating and pathetic. But while it’s mostly hilarious, the story is undercut by deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships. Highly recommended.

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

A lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story, You is about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life. Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty, funny, opinionated, cheeky and fiercely independent. You get pulled into the story because of her voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel particularly immediate, heart-breaking — and real.

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood and was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior. Told in the second person, it’s an intimate account of Molly’s life from her time as the rising star of the Abbey Theatre to a now-elderly woman living in London, in such dire straits she’s prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze. Molly’s feisty, humourous voice, married with her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol, makes her story an incredibly moving one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend a great novel written in the second person?

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2017

10-booksIt’s that time of year again: the longlist for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, has been announced.

There are 147 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

You may remember that last year I put together a list of books on the 2016 list, which was hugely popular, so I thought I’d do the same again this year. I’ve focused on the titles that come from the countries I like to champion on this blog: Australia, Canada and Ireland.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

Fifteen dogs

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis (Canadian)
The winner of the 2015 Giller Prize, this strange and surreal novel follows the antics of 15 dogs who, overnight, are granted the power of language and reasoning and then follows what happens to them.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (Irish)
The winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize and my favourite read from last year, this book charts one man’s midlife crisis as he searches for the Irish island he bought years earlier but has never properly visited.

Spill Simmer Falter Weather

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Irish)
This beautifully written debut novel follows the up-and-down relationship, over the course of a year, between a troubled man and the viscious rescue dog he has adopted.

Under major domo minor

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (Canadian)
This is a dark, often funny, Gothic fairy tale about a young man who experiences many strange things when he begins working for the “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a remote village.

The Green Room

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Irish)
A family drama-cum-black-comedy, this prize-winning novel follows the lives of four siblings and their needy, domineering mother over the course of 25 years.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Australian)
This is an engaging story about a 13-year-old girl being brought up in the 1980s by a single mother living in a hippy commune.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau (Australian)
An environmental novel, or perhaps even a cli-fi one, this is a beautifully constructed tale about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in a rural village in northern New South Wales.

The Little Red Chairs

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien (Irish)
War crimes, retribution and justice are the central themes of this novel, which looks at the long-lasting impact of the Siege of Sarajevo and focuses on a (fictional) war criminal who goes in to hiding in a small Irish village.

Salt Creek

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Australian)
A superb historical novel, Salt Creek tells the story of one family’s attempt to settle and tame a remote region on the South Australian coast in the mid-19th century, and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (Australian)
The winner of this year’s Stella Prize, this anger-fuelled dystopian tale set in the Australian outback focuses on misogyny and sexual shaming.

The prize shortlist will be published on 11 April 2017, and the winner will be announced on 21 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2015

Books-of-the-yearIt’s New Year’s Eve, so  it’s time to carry out my annual tradition of selecting 10 of my reading highlights from the past 12 months.

Over the course of 2015 I read 80 books (nine of which are still to be reviewed — oops) which is about average for me. I could probably read twice that if I spent less time on Twitter and didn’t have to go to work!

My favourite books come from a variety of countries and languages. Some were published this year, most were published prior to 2014. A few could be regarded as modern classics, several may well turn out to be classics of the future. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, some made me feel sick to the stomach. All intrigued and delighted me.

Here they are. Note they have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (2015)
My favourite read of the year, Kevin Barry’s award-winning novel follows the exploits of a troubled man who simply wants to spend three days alone on the island he bought off the west coast of Ireland years ago but has never visited. The plot, which draws strongly on Samuel Beckett, is full of riotous comedy, quick-fire dialogue and surreal moments of despair and angst. I loved it.

spill-simmer-falter-wither-tramp-press

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (2015)
Sara Baume’s debut novel is an impressive achievement. Written in the second person, present tense, it’s a beautiful and sad tale about the year in the life of one man and his newly bought rescue dog. Yet the story is less about their relationship and more about how a social misfit, a resourceful man who can barely string two words together, seeks solace in a world he doesn’t really understand.

The_lover

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
This evocative novel (translated from the French by Barbara Bray) is about forbidden love set in exotic Indochina in 1929. It is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life, as she recalls the love affair she conducted, aged 15, with a Chinese man 12 years her senior. It is, by turns, heart-wrenching, sensual and disturbing, deeply melancholy and pulsates with an aching loneliness. It brings to mind the very best writing of Jean Rhys.

Young-god

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (2014)
This is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The urgency of the writing and the dire predicament of the young narrator — Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old forced to live with her drug-addicted father and his underage lover — make it absolutely compelling reading. It’s not a book to be forgotten easily.

The-Good-Doctor

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut (2003)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year, for The Good Doctor is written in such a lucid dreamlike style I felt I couldn’t function in the real world until I’d finished it. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, it tells the story of a middle-aged staff doctor, working in a deserted rural hospital, who is forced to share his room with a blow-in: a newly qualified doctor brimming with idealism. Thrust together in this unnatural way, the older doctor who narrates the story must confront dark truths about himself — and his country.

Republic-of-Uzupis

The Republic of Užupis by Haïlji (2012)
Possibly the strangest book I’ve read all year, this post-modern novel (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is set in Lithuania even though it’s by a Korean writer.  Hal, the 40-something protagonist, arrives in Vilnius looking for the Republic of Užupis — his father’s homeland — but no-one seems to know where it is located or even whether it exists. Written in dreamlike, melancholic prose, it explores the idea of nationhood, and plays with the notions of time and memory, so it feels like something Paul Auster might have come up with. It’s weirdly compelling.

This-place-holds-no-fear

This Place Holds No Fear by Monika Held (2015)
I went through a phase of reading books about the Holocaust earlier in the year, and this one left a memorable impression, perhaps because it looked at what happens to someone who manages to survive the Nazi death camps; can they ever hope to find happiness and lead a normal life again? The tale is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior. This beautifully told tale offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated from the German by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds. Deeply affecting — and based on a true story.

The-Dig

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)
The Dig pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control — and then explores the outfall between them. This powerful and violent novella explores rural life, Nature,  crime and grief. It is an intense and immersive reading experience, dark and thrilling, but also heart-wrenching and occasionally stomach-churning. I liked it so much I went out and bought Jones’ entire back catalogue.

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? It is essentially a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. I especially loved its depiction of life working on a magazine, and the New York setting was a plus too.

The-enchanted-april

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Proving that I don’t always read fiction that is dark and miserable, The Enchanted April turned out to be a rather delightful, joyous and, dare I say it, enchanting read (see what I did there?) First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners and follows the often humorous exploits that follow. A brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and funny book.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2015?

Note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2014 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Finally, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, likes, clicks and links — both here and on Reading Matters’ Facebook page over the past 12 months; it is very much appreciated. Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! 

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

‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

spill-simmer-falter-wither-tramp-press

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.

A year in the life of a man and his 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

A portrait of 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.