A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume
(Heinemann, hardback, 320 pages. Out now and available here.)
Review by Martha Sprackland
Sara Baume’s inventive debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, appeared to widespread praise two years ago, collecting a number of high-profile shortlistings (including the Costa and Guardian first novel prizes, and both the Warwick and Desmond Elliot awards) and taking home the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. It’s my own fault that her emergence seemed to me sudden; in reality, Baume’s star was already high, recognised with a clutch of significant literary awards in Ireland, where the author grew up. I didn’t have my finger on the pulse. I’m still one step behind, and yet to read her first book. Her second, A Line Made By Walking, is a strange and delicate construction, an idiosyncratic novel about a young woman in her twenties oppressed by a world in which she hasn’t yet found her feet.
Frankie is neurotic, obsessive, depressed, a near-recluse when we join her living alone in her recently deceased grandmother’s tumbledown Lisduff bungalow, on an isolated hill it shares with an elderly, born-again neighbour, a wind turbine, and the season’s new calves. Here, Frankie’s days are vagrant, solitary; she eats tinned sardines, discovers the welcome anaesthetic of gin and tonic in front of the television, spends whole days lying with her face pressed against the carpet in her grandmother’s old bedroom. Like the dust motes stirred up by her minimal movements, like the mysterious patches of light that move across the wallpaper like visiting spirits, Frankie’s existence feels impressionistic, loosely held, her mind and body both unsure of themselves and mistrustful of each other.
Some days, Frankie takes her grandmother’s old bicycle and cycles up and down the hills and lanes without purpose, the wind whipping at her face, flies jamming themselves into the corners of her eyes, her hands jolted sore by hours of riding. And she tries to make art. The text is punctuated by reproductions of her amateur photographs of roadkill in black and white (a touch which lends the story an impression of verisimilitude, of autobiography, though I obediently resist this). These photographs divide the book into its chapters: Robin, Rabbit, Mouse, Badger, ten of them in total, each one illustrated by its pitiful dead namesake part-flattened by one of the few cars that pass this lonely place. The photographs are close-ups, focusing on small snouts, velvet legs, slumbering eyes, a dark spill of entrails. This is Frankie’s project, a project of attempted kindness, one she fits into the pantheon of other works of art with which she challenges herself in memory tests, like a proof against encroaching forgetfulness or insanity. It’s a mantra:
Works about Deprivation, I test myself: Tehching Hseih, One Year Performance, 1978–79. Works about Hair, I test myself: I learned how to roll strands from Mona Hatoum, an installation called Recollection, 1995. Works about Death, or maybe Life, or maybe Misunderstanding, I test myself: Jo Spence and Terry Dennett. From a photographic series called Final Project, 1991–2.
Frankie’s degree in art, and her subsequent stint as a low-level assistant in a gallery, provide the intellectual grounding for these reflections. At the book’s heart is a problem about art, not necessarily The Problem of Art, but the problem of whether or not to make it. How familiar is that feeling, the desire to create, the terrible white space that precedes work, the desperate failure to live up to its ideals. There’s an interesting privileging at work, a hierarchy of creative endeavour in which torn billboards are art, roadside trash is art, a dead fox is possibly art; Frankie’s ‘failed’ drawings of animal fur are not art; Frankie’s childhood inclination towards make-and-do hovers, unsure, on the borderline, with the validity and naïveté of juvenilia. The works she lists each day are untouchable; named, dated, shown in galleries and museums, and it’s the frustration opened up by this tenuous, subjective space that gives rise to Frankie’s feelings of failure, of inauthenticity, her falling-short.
It’s time to postpone – if not entirely abandon – my burden of unrealistic ambition. To start churning the intellect I have left into simply feeling better; to make this my highest goal. It is time to accept that I am average, and to stop making this acceptance of my averageness into a bereavement.
The reader is sympathetic – at least, this reader is sympathetic. As writers, as artists, as whatever, there are periods of despondent realisation in which we resign ourselves to a different kind of life: in which it is ‘too late to be a genius’, in which we are not exceptional, in which the life we have been led to expect (by the individualism of our generation, by the ‘lies’ told to us by the for-profit higher-education sector, by youth) must be packed up and put away, like a dream of being an astronaut. It’s easy to be scathing towards that, I know. There are times, in A Line Made By Walking, when Frankie’s disappointment feels like affronted entitlement: But I was promised! She is different, she is special; she is the same, she is ordinary. I wonder if I feel the book doesn’t quite do enough to reconcile these tensions; how much I feel (not much older, myself, at twenty-eight, than the book’s protagonist) a little fondly patronising, that this crisis will pass, that Frankie is allowing herself to wallow and founder. But I don’t feel that, not really. I recognise so much of my own condition in Frankie’s, the obsessive worries, the social anxiety, the hypochondria, guilt, desperation, the apathetic, frozen, moribund state of being that so often has seen me, desperate to write, instead getting drunk and binge-watching inconsequential (or brilliant) box-sets on Netflix. Baume writes well the paralysis and anxiety of that life, so too the question of diagnosis – will Diazepam cure this alienation? Will Sertraline? Will alcohol? Will philosophy?
Baume also does animals beautifully. The bungalow is porous; moths and slugs enter at will, pupae hang, fermenting, from the ceiling, spiderwebs make and remake themselves each day, cats and foxes and cows and owls call at night like instruments in an orchestra underneath the low, omnipresent bass of the turbine. Sometimes they are tolerated, sometimes smashed between two fingers. There are mites in the carpet, there are birds everywhere. In contrast, a trip to Dublin is empty, grey – the few birds there are desert Frankie in favour of a woman with a bag of bread (‘it swells inside their digestive systems, bungs up their bellies with damp dough’). She tries to be kind, and her kindness goes awry. She will not photograph something she has killed. She kills a sparrow she finds mired in melted tar on a hot day, drowning it in the water basin after a failed attempt to save it. The struggle of doing what is Right.
The little love interest, her friend Ben with whom she painted walls at the gallery, is a non-event – I almost say the book could have done without it, but Baume is aware enough of its insignificance to refrain from attempting to make this a love story. What’s more important is the relationship Frankie has with her mother, a kind, forgiving woman who understands, whose deep sadness at the foundering of her unhappy daughter is manifest in the cakes she makes, the concerned phonecalls.
The ending is potentially, ambiguously redemptive. I’m reminded of other recent books – others with young, anxious or dissociative female protagonists, like Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, or Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, both of which I’ve read this year – whose endings allow for the possibility of recovery without specificity. It’s satisfactory, here – no revelation, no illumination – without the trite redemption with which a lesser writer would’ve been compelled to finish.
A Line Made By Walking is an unusual, lyrically written book, completely readable, frequently (to my poet’s eye) startlingly beautiful, a touching and believable account of one small life trying to pull itself together, to make itself run. I’ll go back to the debut, next, and no doubt read it, and Baume’s books to come, with pleasure.
Martha, one of our poets-in-residence, will be reading at our next Horse Hospital event, which takes place on 20 March. More information here.