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The art of suffering: Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking

Dead relatives, death-filled homes, rural wanderings fill Sara Baume's haunting new novel.

A Line Made By Walking is a sophomore novel that feels in one (but only one) way like a debut. Where 2015’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was remarkable for the quality of Sara Baume’s sympathy with characters unlike herself – a damaged man, a wounded dog, both of them old-ish – the protagonist of Line is closer to the autofictional kind that many writers start with.

Frankie is Baume-like in age, sex and background: mid-twenties, female, and returned to the Irish countryside where she grew up after a student hiatus in Dublin. She is also, like Baume, an artist and struggling with it. In one scene that is a close parallel of a story Baume has told about herself, she has lunch with some old schoolfriends; the friends discuss their starter salaries and the lifestyles they expect to purchase, as Frankie stares into her “bowlful of unusual lettuces” and realises how little she has in common with them. For Frankie, the idea of a salary has never occurred. She is, simply, devoted to art.

That devotion comes out in one of the book’s recurring motifs as she tests herself on her knowledge of art: “Works about Falling, I test myself,” thinks Frankie, inspired by a memory of a storm-felled tree, or (after a fleeting fantasy of feigning mental illness to get committed), “Works about Fakery, I test myself.” There are roughly 75 of these tests dotted throughout the book, paragraph-long embeddings of art history and criticism filtered through the character.

It’s a tic that illuminates not only Frankie but also the works she describes. Even if you are a sceptic of conceptual art (her preferred genre), her obsessive love and sometimes honest bafflement about their meaning can bring these works more brightly to life than a cursory visit to a gallery. Baume’s mixing of the visual arts and fiction is as satisfying as Ali Smith’s. Frankie’s experience with art, however, is less happy: passing her self-imposed tests matters because she feels deeply that she is a failure in other ways.

She has not made a career in art, and she has had a nervous breakdown, forcing her back from the city to the hilltop home of her dead grandmother, living off money that her grandmother had left for the support of a morbidly obese Golden Retriever called Joe, now dead, too: “His heart had stopped. A fat pink clock no one remembered to wind.” That description typifies Baume’s ability to find the grotesque in the familiar. Indeed, while the critics’ praise for Spill often focused on its themes of redemption and affection, its greatest power was in the grotesque: the dog’s “maggoty nose”, rats in the walls, and a horrific last-act revelation.

Yet Line also shares much with Spill: dead relatives, death-filled homes, rural wanderings; and though Line’s notes of horror are less explicit, they are perhaps more disturbing. Baume’s evocation of depression is so precise and so powerful that, roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, Frankie’s illness began to feel as if it were my own. Yet her outsider observations of the world are often funny, and always acute. A visit to the salon turns into an existential nightmare when she deploys antisocial honesty with her hairdresser. “People don’t like it when you say real things,” she concludes, the punchline to a scene that many readers with any experience of depression, direct or indirect, will recognise.

In Frankie’s stew of self-reproach, her thoughts circle death, and this gives the novel its other framing device besides the tests. Every chapter is named for a dead thing she has found and photographed, either in her grandmother’s garden or on her bicycle rides through the countryside: a robin, a rook, a fox. (These photos are included, though the black-and-white reproductions are frustratingly smeared.) But Baume describes living nature as keenly as she does its dead representatives. “Trees know in their heartwood that if they didn’t surrender their foliage in autumn, high winds would sail them to the ground,” thinks Frankie, eloquently sensitive to vegetation.

This is a novel about abscission, about the process of shedding parts of the living organism so that survival might be possible. It is also a novel about art: what it is for, why it is made and what makes it valuable. It is, beautifully, about finding accommodation with the ordinary: surrendering a belief in exceptionalism and relearning the ­childish habit of application. Frankie must make her own line, and making it is her escape. Whether ultimately the character succeeds in her ambitions or not, her author deserves to feel wholly satisfied with this raw-nerved and wonderful novel.

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume is out now.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear