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.
Short-listed for The Goldsmiths Prize 2017 (UK).
"When I finished Sara Baume's new novel I immediately felt sad that I could not send it in the post to the late John Berger. He, too, would have loved it and found great joy in its honesty, its agility, its beauty, its invention. Baume is a writer of outstanding grace and style. She writes beyond the time we live in." -- Colum McCann "A fascinating portrait of an artist's breakdown in rural Ireland ... a remarkable ability to generate narrative pace while eschewing plot, making it enough for the reader to observe a mind observing the world ... it's fascinating, because of the cumulative power of the precise, pleasingly rhythmic sentences, and the unpredictable intelligence of the narrator's mind ... Art may also require a willingness to question the ordinary that is incompatible with conventional criteria of sanity. One of the most radical aspects of this novel is its challenge to received wisdom about mental illness ... There are no answers here, but there is a reminder of the beauty that can be found when you allow yourself to look slowly and sadly at the world." * Guardian * "After a remarkable and deservedly award-winning debut, here is a novel of uniqueness, wonder, recognition, poignancy, truth-speaking, quiet power, strange beauty and luminous bedazzlement. Once again, I've been Baumed." -- Joseph O'Connor "Extraordinarily compelling ... What makes it so gripping as that the reader is trapped in Frankie's mind as much as she is; every tiny detail is magnified into metaphysical significance that she cannot understand and that the reader cannot parse ... Frankie's surreal and yet understandable mind-patterns are eloquent as well as awful ... On the dust-jacket Joseph O'Connor says that Baume is a `writer touched by greatness.' I think she is bruised by it." -- Stuart Kelly * The Spectator * "Unflinching, at times uncomfortable, and always utterly compelling, A Line Made By Walking is among the best accounts of grief, loneliness and depression that I have ever read. Every word of it rings true, the truth of hard-won knowledge wrested from the abyss. Shot through with a wild, yearning melancholy, it is nevertheless mordantly witty. It felt, to me, kindred to Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: not just on a superficial level, a young woman seeking solace in art, but in the urgent depth of its quest to understand and articulate what it means to make art, and what art might mean for the individual, lost and lonely; how it might bring us out of, or back to, ourselves." -- Lucy Caldwell "This is, explicitly, a book about art and "sadness", but it is neither affected nor mawkish ... This is the challenge that Baume has evidently set herself - to find a fresh perspective - and she has excelled ... Baume's is an immensely sensitive balancing act of a book, one that declines to resolve its tensions. Towards its conclusion, Frankie muses on how her odyssey ought to "end in a substantial event". The adjective is strikingly ironic in view of Baume's actual denouement, and further evidence of just how carefully calibrated this original and affecting novel is." -- Stephanie Cross * Observer * "A Line Made by Walking is a profound, ruminative study of a young woman who takes photographs of dead animals ... A Line Made by Walking is self-interrogating autofiction plus art criticism in a distinctly Irish mode: Sara Baume has as much in common with, say, Maggie Nelson as she does with Edna O'Brien ... Brilliantly understated reflections on art and life." -- Ian Sansom * Times Literary Supplement * "Baume's mixing of the visual arts and fiction is as satisfying as Ali Smith's ... [a] raw-nerved and wonderful novel." * The New Statesman * "This is a masterclass in the power of prose ... A brilliant work that will likely resonate with anyone who's ever felt a little lost in their twenties and beyond." * The Herald * "Baume's conceit is imaginative and well organised, her writing pellucid and open." * The Times *
Sara Baume was born in Lancashire and grew up in County Cork, Ireland. She studied fine art and creative writing and her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as the Irish Times, the Guardian, The Stinging Fly and Granta magazine. She has won the Davy Byrne's Short Story Award, the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize for Literature, an Irish Book Award for Best Newcomer and the Kate O'Brien Award. Her debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing and the Desmond Elliott Prize. She has received a Literary Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A Line Made by Walking is her second novel. She lives in West Cork.