A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume: ‘Barely there’

Cover image Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was one of my favourite books of 2015. Deeply rooted in the natural world, it’s filled with wonderfully poetic descriptions. The sheer musicality of its language captivated me. I was, of course, hoping for the same from Baume’s new book given that it, too, seemed to have its feet firmly planted in nature. Both novels follow a year or so in the lives of characters who sit uncomfortably in the world: in Baume’s debut Ray finds solace in One Eye the dog who becomes his first and only friend; in A Line Made by Walking Frankie is an artist, lost and unable to find a footing either in art or in life.

Twenty-five-year-old Frankie finds herself on the floor, face pressed to the ratty carpet of her bedsit, reluctant to move, listening to the noises of the neighbours she’s never met. Putting the childhood she wishes she could re-enter behind her, she left home to study art in Dublin where friendships begun in hope faded away. After graduation she found herself a job in a gallery, part-time and short-term, restoring its walls to a pristine white whenever a scuff appeared, but that’s over now. She has just one friend who she says goodbye to in their time-honoured fashion washing down a box of Black Magic with copious amounts of red wine. Her mother appears the next day and takes her home where Frankie languishes until she decides she needs to be alone, offering to house-sit her grandmother’s increasingly dilapidated bungalow, left empty and unsold since her death. Stumbling upon the almost perfect corpse of a robin one day, Frankie decides to photograph it, to make it part of an art work, a project that might rescue her from her overwhelming unhappiness and loneliness.

Baume structures Frankie’s narrative around the photographs which comprise her project. Each chapter is made up of Frankie’s thoughts, memories of childhood and her life in Dublin, observations about the world around her, and descriptions of artworks reflecting her preoccupations. Their fragmentary nature works well, conveying the sense of a mind in disorder. The writing is characteristically striking: ‘By means of her brown paper bags, the shop woman shows me which purchases I ought to be ashamed of’; ‘Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head’; ‘The pills are just a new sort of sadness… …Softer, slyer’. There’s an aching feeling of loneliness and distress running through the novel conveying Frankie’s debilitating depression and her mother’s quietly careful, concern. Baume liberally peppers her narrative with descriptions of conceptual art works, amplifying Frankie’s musings. Some of these are very effective, in particular the eponymous work by Richard Long who specialises in ‘barely there art’ which sums up Frankie’s tenuous existence perfectly, although there were a few too many for me. It’s an unsettling novel, deeply affecting, and its ending came as a surprise.

12 thoughts on “A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume: ‘Barely there’”

  1. I was surprised by the ending too! I like those quotes you picked out. She writes so well about that sense of isolation. Have you read Jessie Greengrass’ short stories? Baume’s writing reminds me of her stories.

    1. I’m not sure it entirely worked! Her writing is so beautiful, isn’t it, and that feeling of isolation is aching. Thanks for the recommendation, Eric. I haven’t read Greengrass but will add her to my list.

  2. Spill Simmer is still on my wish-list (damn my book-buying-bans and how good I am at sticking to them!) HOWEVER I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this one (alerted to its publication via one of your ‘Books to look out for’ posts) so looking forward to it.

    1. It’s a very fine novel, Annabel, although I didn’t like it quite as much as SSFW which had set the bar extraordinarily high.

    1. Thanks, Resh. I can recommend both her novels. Lovely use of language particularly in Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

  3. I still have mixed feelings about Spill Simmer Falter Wither, perhaps a victim of too high expectations, but whilst I liked it I didn’t love it and I’m not sure why because it’s the exact sort of thing which is right up my street. This sounds like an interesting read, though perhaps I need to forget what everyone else has said about it before I read it. Expectations can be a killer! Great review Susan. Despite my reservations, you’ve still tempted me 🙂

    1. You’re absolutely right about expectations – social media can escalate them out of all proportion. I’m not sure if I’m pleased to have tempted you given your reading resolution!

      1. I think I’m keeping the temptations under control 🙂 I’ve been adding books I’m interested in to my library list, so I can come back to them later when I have some space in my reading diary. I don’t want to lose touch with what’s going on in the publishing world, I just need to be realistic about how much I can actually read and absorb in one lifetime!

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