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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

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.