A Line Made by Walking
Review by STELLA:
A young artist is retreating into herself. She finds comfort face-down on the grotty carpet of her small bedsit in Dublin, miserably curled around herself, thinking about the carpets of her childhood and the failure of her adult life. Realising that she must quit her unsatisfactory job at the art gallery, she calls her mother, packs up, eschewing her seemingly few friends, and leaves the city to return to her childhood home. After a week or so in what she refers to as the ‘famine hospital’ - her childhood bedroom, packed with memories and mementos that she has a love/hate relationship with, she asks to stay in her Nan’s rundown cottage. Her grandmother died three years previously and the house with its tired 'For Sale' sign is still vacant. Staying here gives Frankie a sense of being centred, but she is still at odds with herself, and depression is forever on her back. She observes all the decaying mess that is nature and humanity, noticing the rundown, the broken, and the left behind. The nick-nacks of her Nan’s life on the sills of the windows both represent the pointless and the holders of memory - odd talismans. Frankie can’t quite seem to work up enthusiasm for much, but she has the observant eye of an artist. When she spots a dead robin on the roadside, she starts a project: photographs of dead things. Each chapter is entitled a dead animal, representing her finds: mouse, rabbit, fox, hedgehog, badger. The novel is set in rural Ireland: it’s both beautiful and bleak. Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking is an intimate portrait of mental illness, anxiety and acute awareness. While it is sometimes gruelling to be inside Frankie’s mind it is also fascinating: a mix between what we all hang onto in our lives (memories and safety nets), what we think but don’t say (Frankie has a tendency to speak ‘reality’ - she doesn’t hold back her thoughts - making observations which are like puncture wounds), and what it means to suffer the anxiety of being or trying to become an artist. Frankie’s issues lie in her deep uncertainty about her life and her inability to produce anything as an artist. Baume cleverly shapes the novel - it is written in the first person with clusters of capsule-like considerations, musings and memories, fleeting thoughts which build to capture this complex person. Interspersed within these deliberations are references to visual artworks - over 70. Frankie is constantly testing herself, drawing on her knowledge, trying to make herself relevant: “Works about Being, I test myself: On Kawara, beginning 1966. A series of paintings showing nothing but the date upon which they were made. He also sent missives to acquaintances and friends which simply read: I AM STILL ALIVE, followed by his signature.” If you know the works it adds further layers to the texture of the writing; if you don’t it leads to further discoveries. The chapters also feature the photographs of the dead animals. Baume isn’t interested in plot, she is investigating what it means to think and feel deeper, what sadness looks like, particularly inside the head of Frankie, a young woman stymied by her inability to act on her desires and overwhelmed by depression. It’s not all gloom; it is lifted by some wry observations, the lack of sentiment, and Baume’s excellent writing - sharp, astute and lyrical.
A Line Made by Walking, the successor of the critically acclaimed Spill Simmer Falter Wither, is a beautiful and elegant novel by an author whose empathy shines a bright, piercing light on the heart-breaking realities of being alive.
Struggling to cope with urban life - and with life in general - Frankie, a twenty-something artist, retreats to the rural bungalow on 'turbine hill' that has been vacant since her grandmother's death three years earlier. It is in this space, surrounded by nature, that she hopes to regain her footing in art and life. She spends her days pretending to read, half-listening to the radio, failing to muster the energy needed to leave the safety of her haven. Her family comes and goes, until they don't and she is left alone to contemplate the path that led her here, and the smell of the carpet that started it all.
Finding little comfort in human interaction, Frankie turns her camera lens on the natural world and its reassuring cycle of life and death. What emerges is a profound meditation on the interconnectedness of wilderness, art and individual experience, and a powerful exploration of human frailty.