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28 February 2017

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.

By Sarah Ditum

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.

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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.

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit