Friday 15 December 2017

Baume returns with a sad but powerful work of art

Fiction: A Line Made by Walking, Sara Baume, Tramp Press, pbk, 281 pages, €15

Barely-there art: Sara Baume
Barely-there art: Sara Baume

Ruth Gilligan

The first time we encounter the phrase "a line made by walking" in Sara Baume's novel of the same name, is when the protagonist, Frankie, describes a painting. The painting in question is Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh, in which a path can be seen cutting through a gaudy field, set beneath a cantankerous sky. Frankie explains that this is believed to be van Gogh's last ever work before he killed himself (in those same fields), while his last ever words, according to Wikipedia, were "the sadness will last forever".

This melancholy little anecdote is symptomatic of the entire novel, and indeed of its protagonist, for Frankie is also an artist suffering from depression, hoping desperately that the sadness won't in fact last forever. In an effort to avoid this being the case, she has decided to spend her 26th summer alone in her late grandmother's dilapidated countryside cottage. "The point of being here," she explains, "is to recover."

Such a troubled soul, living on the fringes of society, instantly calls to mind Ray, the protagonist of Baume's extraordinary debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Originally published by the newly-formed Tramp Press, the story of Ray and his beloved dog One-Eye swiftly captured hearts around the globe, announcing Baume's talent in all its resplendent yet understated glory.

Here again in A Line Made by Walking, there is a dog (or at least, there was) - the late grandmother's late retriever, Joe. The house still carries the loyal animal's stench, adding a further layer of loss to the stale air of Frankie's adoptive home. And yet, even still she seeks out more - more deaths; more unfortunate animals - as she scours the local landscape for dead creatures. Once she finds one, she photographs it and uploads the image on to her laptop, a sort of morbid-obsession-turned-art-project; a single concrete task to fill her aimless days. These photos are also reproduced for us, the reader, at the start of each chapter, while the novel's cover is a shot of a dead crow, taken by Baume herself. So the visual and the textual; the dead and the living; the fictional and the real are constantly pressed up against one another to startling consequence.

The novel as a whole raises some interesting autobiographical questions, since Baume - like her protagonist - also trained and practiced as a visual artist, and enjoys a remote existence in rural Ireland. Meanwhile, upon reading the book, one is instantly put in mind of other recent works of autobiographical nature writing, such as Amy Liptrot's astounding The Outrun or Helen Macdonald's multi-award-winning H is for Hawk. In each case, an immersion in or communion with the natural world offers a kind of salve for the writer's emotional and psychological struggles.

This is not to say that Baume's book is in any way derivative. But actually, comparing her novel to other works of art feels particularly appropriate, given that throughout the book, Frankie forces herself to call to mind correspondent artistic pieces for every thought or observation she encounters. So after considering the tree that fell the night of her grandmother's death, she tests herself on 'Works about Falling'. Then later it is 'Works about Birds, I test myself…' or 'Works about Cats, I test myself…' or 'Works about Lower, Slower, Views'. It is during the latter 'test' that she calls to mind Richard Long's A Line Made by Walking, in which the artist creates a barely-susceptible track through a vast stretch of grass. After describing the work, Frankie concludes that Long "specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible".

In many ways, Baume's novel might likewise be described as 'barely-there art'. Not a lot happens. Frankie is all alone. She cuts her hair. She travels to Dublin for the day but doesn't meet a soul. She stares at the sky, the fields, the hills. But in between these 'barely-there' actions, we gain a profound insight into her childhood; her failed relationships; her bond with her mother - the only one who seems to understand her complexities, her flaws.

More broadly, Frankie's quiet retreat leaves space to think about bigger issues - about racism in Ireland and eating disorders in teenage girls; about disability and the many versions of grief; about mental health and fundamental religion and the inexplicable terror of disappointment which can overshadow everything, even the lush overgrowth; even the breathtaking views.

In this book, Baume has once again proven that even the smallest lives can unveil the biggest truths. As Frankie concludes: "Art is everywhere… art is every inexplicable thing."

A Line Made by Walking may be a very sad, very quiet book, but it is an inexplicably powerful work of art.

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