Call It Baumish Prose
There’s a kind of magic in the poetic prose of Irish author Sara Baume, something uniquely identifiable, that you know you are in the presence of within a few pages.
My first encounter was her nonfiction title Handiwork, one I highly recommend as a starting place to her work and style. This title is like a spring board into her fiction, an introduction to the visual artist, the poet, the keen observer and storyteller.
Seven Steeples feels like a levelling up in confidence, it casts aside the idea that a novel requires a plot; if there is one, it might be the ever present question, addressed in the first sentence of each chapter, of another passing year, will the mountain be climbed?
The Irony – A Misanthropic Romantic Encounter
Bell and Sigh meet at an outing with mutual friends and fall into step together. Soon they are moving out of their respective lodgings to a house in the country, in the south-west of Ireland; flanked by a mountain, near the sea, opposite a field where bullocks roam, neighbours to a dairy farmer and his black and white cows. They have a dog each, Voss and Pip. There is a van. A tree in the backyard.
They say there is a wild goat who lives up there, the landlord said, the last surviving member of an indigenous flock.
They say that from the top, the landlord said,
you can see
seven standing stones, seven schools,
and seven steeples.
Bell and Sigh avoid humankind as much as possible, letting go of social and family ties, of obligations, of convention. They are creatures of routine, as are their animals.
It Was Windy
Baume describes everything about them, about the house, its character, its creaks and groans, its smallest inhabitants, the habits of all those who dwell within its walls, inside its walls, outside its walls in her multiple adjective, poetic prose, that skips across the page to a rhythmic beat.
Discovering a blue rope clothes line in the overgrown grass, they string it up between the tree and the house.
Without knowing it, they had fashioned a wind instrument. There was the flapping of wet fabric, the dull jangle of the wooden pegs, the ping of weathered springs as they came apart, the thud of timber pincers against sod.
The tree was an instrument too. The tips of its branches rapped the plaster skin of the house like drumsticks.
The house was an orchestra – of pipes and whistles, of cymbals and chimes, of missing keys and broken reeds. All January the elements played its planes and lax panes, its slates and flutes. Sometimes its music was a kind of keening , other times, a spontaneous round of applause.
I had the feeling I was reading a prose poem, one that celebrated and played with words, that painted a picture of two people who’d stepped outside of the ordinary life that had become too onerous and sought another kind of ordinary; a slower, quieter more insular version, that fostered simplicity and ignored conformity, that sacrificed the greater community for being at one with the immediate surrounds.
The Hybrid Poet & Spiders
Sara Baume is hands down one of my favourite authors; I love it when a poet rises above that conventional form to create something more akin to storytelling, without losing their adeptness at poetic flow. She is the hybrid poet, one who can take a skill in one area and apply it to another and create something unique, a singular recognisable, assured voice.
In this text she surpasses what was one of my favourite ever literary descriptions of a spider, until now that prize belonged to Martin Booth in his stunning novel The Industry of Souls, for years my favorite novel.
Here is a glimpse at what Sara Baume can do with the common household spider, while subtly acknowledging their insistence in inhabiting various places, in this unconventional life:
First we meet the spider that lives behind the wing mirror of their van, who takes refuge behind the glass.
After every journey, it mended the damage done to its tenuous web by the forcing of rushing air and whipping briars.
And then we meet more, these passages delighted me not just for their linguistic beauty, but due to the familiar feeling of having observed and got to know the habits of certain household spiders, to the point of almost thinking of them as free-ranging pets. When they become something your son wants to show people who visit, who begins to trap insects himself to feed the arachnid.
A different, less industrious spider took up residence in the hollow bars of the steel gate. Another lived in the rubber hollows of the welcome mat. And there were dozens distributed throughout the house –
in alcoves, cupboards, inglenooks,
in open spaces and plain sight.
The largest house spider kept to a cranny beneath the bathroom radiator by day. By night it crawled into the folds of the towels or slid down the gently-slanting sides of the bathtub. In the morning, Bell or Sigh – whoever happened to discover it first – had to dangle a corner of the bathmat down like a rope ladder;
like a lifebuoy.
To the spider, the tub was a snowy fjord, a glacial valley – vast, unmarred, arresting. It knew this was an unsafe place. Still it could not quell a desire to summit the tub’s outer edge. Each time it was blinded by a white glare,
and lost its footing, all eight of its footings,
Language skips, pauses, ponders, leaves gaps, creates shapes on the page, carries the reader along on a repetitive yet spellbinding journey that never moves outside a 20 mile radius of their humble abode.
The narrative passes through the months, the seasons, and seven years as they learn about the patterns of their environment and each other, about how to live in harmony with their surroundings, until these humans and their dogs are no longer separate entities, they are as if one.
Sara Baume, Author
Sara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and has been widely translated. Her second novel, A Line Made by Walking, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and her 2020 bestselling non-fiction book, handiwork, was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Seven Steeples, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and has just been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2023.
Her writing has won the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize, an Irish Book Award, as well as being nominated for countless others including the Costa and the Dublin Literary Award. She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and lives in West Cork where she works as a visual artist as well as a writer.
My review of Handiwork (Creative Nonfiction)
My review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither
My review of A Line Made By Walking
The Passenger Ireland – including an essay by Sara Baume – Talismans
Interview, Public Libraries Online: “I’m Always Writing in Extremity of My Life” — Sara Baume on Her Gorgeous and Poetic New Novel by Brendan Dowling
I really ought to give Baume another go … but …
Perhaps try her nonfiction title Handiwork, it’s a short, easy read and it explains so much without saying, about her fiction. Seven Steeples was wonderful.
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Hello, Claire — It was because of you that I read ‘The Industry of Souls’ and because of you that I intend to read ‘Seven Steeples.’ Thank you, as always, for your very thoughtful reviews and recommendations. For what it’s worth, I do have a thing for Irish writers. 😉
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Hello Deborah, Oh I’m so pleased that you will join me to read ‘Seven Steeples’, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I really recommend her creative nonfiction title ‘Handiwork’ as well, I think you might also enjoy that one and it is a wonderful introduction to her as a visual artist and lays a foundation for her fiction. I guess I’m saying that because I read her nonfiction title before reading any of her fiction. So lovely to hear from you. 🙂
I just went back to your review of ‘Handiwork,’ and was especially delighted to see your mention of ‘A Ghost In the Throat,’ another book I simply loved for its inventive narrative and beautiful writing. I told you I had a thing for Irish writers ;-).
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And they share the same publisher Tramp Press, something I noted and have kept an eye on, clearly they have a gift for spotting literary gems!
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