Saturday 24 June 2017

From sculptor to wordsmith: a meditation on life and art

Fiction: A Line Made By Walking, Sara Baume, Tramp Press, €15.00

Exceptional: Sara Baume's 'precise observations of nature and fresh, original images are compelling'
Exceptional: Sara Baume's 'precise observations of nature and fresh, original images are compelling'
A Line Made by Walking Cover

Justine Carbery

Originally a fine arts student, Sara Baume turned her attention to words, winning the 2014 Davy Byrnes Award and the 2015 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award for her short stories.

She then burst on to the Irish and international literary scene with her debut novel Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither about a 57-year old misfit and the strange, grisly, one-eyed dog he adopted. What stood out most about this critically acclaimed novel was the strong voice, which successfully blended local character and poetic lyricism.

This week saw the launch of her second book, A Line Made by Walking, which draws on her own experiences and tells the tale of a fragile artist, living on the fringes of society, struggling to find her place in the world.

Frankie, a 25-year-old artist living in a bedsit in Dublin, is made redundant from the gallery where she works, and struggles to keep afloat - mentally and financially.

A Line Made by Walking Cover
A Line Made by Walking Cover

Retreating to the countryside, back to her homeplace, she house-sits her deceased grandmother's bungalow which is up for sale, and hopes that this time alone will offer her the chance to heal.

She retreats into herself, loses weight and the energy to function, and is diagnosed by successive doctors as clinically depressed.

She refuses to take medication to alleviate the existential despair she feels, fearing it would dull her artistic sensibility; her openness to the sorrow and beauty of the world. Alone in the memory-laden house of her beloved grandmother, she sifts through childhood memorabilia, remembering scenes from her youth, all of which give us a glimpse into the world of the sensitive, unsure child who would grow into an anxiety-ridden adult.

Her father who has 'more sturdy grace' than most and her endlessly patient mother keep an eye on her, while allowing her the space and the time to heal.

One day as she is driving around, she finds a dead robin on the road and notes "because my small world is coming apart in increments, it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too". She decides to start an artistic project; photographing dead things, "A series about how everything is being slowly killed".

And so the book is divided into separate sections, accompanied by photographs of the dead creatures Frankie encounters on her lonely wanderings; a robin, a rabbit, a rat, etc. and her musings on her personal slide into crushing sadness and despair. Each scene is peppered with references to conceptual art installations of the last century, which we are encouraged to look up, many of which reflect her sense of ennui and futility.

Thin on story, this novel could, in another's hands be dull and narcissistic - but Baume's exceptional writing rescues it from such a fate. Her precise observations of nature and fresh, original images are compelling, full of lilting musicality and searing sadness. Open any page and you will be dazzled by the stunning language and insight. Describing a fresh fall of conkers trampled by passing cars she says they "lie spewing their milky innards, a miniature battlefield of detonated tree bombs".

Searingly honest, this anguished account of a mental breakdown makes uncomfortable reading at times, the artist at the centre of this meditation on art, loneliness and depression coming across as a vulnerable ,fragile figure.

At times it is almost too raw, too personal. However I had to keep reading, in the hope that there would be some redemption, some healing. But also to slowly savour the beautiful writing and to understand her quest for the meaning of "Art and sadness, which last forever".

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