Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, Tramp Press, 288 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-1916291485
Among the mysteries that make Sara Baume’s new novel so beguiling, there is the question of what, ultimately, her characters are seeking. When Bell and Sigh leave their humdrum jobs, and the flats they share with strangers, to live together in rural isolation, it is with “the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear”. So far, so clear, but what are we to make of this desire for self-effacement?
Cutting themselves off from family and friends, they live out their anti-heroic ideal with heroic singularity of purpose. They move to a remote corner of the southwest of Ireland and take up residence in a dilapidated farmhouse, situated between the coast and a low mountain. Furnishing the house with ragtag second-hand belongings, they establish routines based around walking their two dogs and preparing simple meals. They avoid all but necessary contact with other humans and subordinate their activities to the rhythms of the weather and the seasons.
Quiet, respectful and humble, they are sympathetic blow-ins. A description of them as having “a spike of misanthropy” partly accounts for their estrangement from their fellow humans, but is not fully borne out by the narrative, aside from a few caustic remarks about second-home holidaymakers. They are gentle, thoughtful souls, given to feeding donkeys and leaving their own cut hair outside for the use of nest-building birds.
Highly attentive to their surroundings, they register every change in the landscape of their new home. Flora and fauna, slurry-spills and farm machinery, lost gloves and discarded sandwich wrappers – their gaze takes in the beautiful and the ugly with the same interest, the same acceptance, the same monastic forbearance. And what they cannot perceive from their lowly vantage, the mysterious mountain sees.
The only thing more extreme than their self-abnegation is their devotion to coupledom: “a cult, a church of two; this was their experiment”. As if their negligible contact with other people was not enough, they spend “the whole day within calling-out distance of each other”. At one point, we learn that they brush their teeth at night “elbow to elbow”. Later, we are told that they share a bedside water glass.
Although the novel is narrated in the third person, it tends to Bell’s perspective. We are privy to her slight doubts and superstitions, and this gives her more purchase on the reader’s mind than the wistful Sigh. But such is the diffidence of the retiring human protagonists that the personalities of their two dogs – especially the vigorous, impulsive terrier Voss – often predominate. Part of the novel’s artistic subtlety, its moral purpose, resides in its radical account of this household of four co-existing in almost perfect equality, to the point that the reader knows them all more or less equally well.
And so our tender lovers, our recluses-of-two, our family of four, live their modest lives, their communal life, which is elaborated by Baume in exquisite detail. An artist as well as a writer, she is an outstanding observer. For all the mythical, enigmatic eyes that stud the narrative, it is the author’s own that are truly all-seeing. And everything she notices is animated by her electric prose.
Occasionally, however, she blinks. One of the challenges of an austere novel like this, with almost no plot, drama or urgency, is to present the quotidian in fresh, interesting language. The attendant danger is overwriting:
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, and skied.
This kind of description has more to do with writing than with spiders or anything else.
There are also uncharacteristic outbreaks of purple prose, such as a reference to the “group circumnavigations and individual circumvolutions” of bullocks.
And there are Baroque excesses that recall John Donne at his most expansive:
Their bed was a sea.
Their bed was all the seas together, mussed and moiling – the untouched Arctic patch north of their necks beneath the pillows, the straits around their twitching feet, the truncated expanse of Mediterranean between them, its melodramatic warmth.
We even get a glitch in the timeline. The novel makes some deft allusions to the pre-mask stage of the pandemic – the couple is so removed from society that they are unaware of it – but then mentions the arrival of storms called Ewan, Brian and Ophelia, which would place the narrative in 2017.
These infelicities, and a few others like them, do not detract very much from the novel, but they are unfortunate blemishes in a work that has perfection within its grasp.
The isolation of the characters chimes well with our pandemic experiences, just as their provisional lives will resonate with the many people trapped in the rental market. These elements give a timely edge to a story that is actually up to its oxters in the timeless.
With uncanny skill, the narrative inhabits all the layers of West Cork – the animistic, the Christian, the poor, the ruined, the chic, the farmed, the wild, the New Age – at once. These elements are not treated episodically, but are tightly interwoven, magnificently cotemporaneous.
This timelessness is reinforced by the fairy-tale framing. From the top of the mountain, which the protagonists do not climb for seven years out of a curious reticence, you can apparently see seven standing stones, seven schools and seven steeples. In its exploration of the strange dilatory effects of time, of the eternal that rises up out of the everyday once people are removed from the bustle of modern life, the time-chewing maws of a job; in its prominent use of the number seven to indicate fairy-tale magic at the fringes of the ultra-realistic narration; in the way the anti-heroes are prevented by a kind of fantastical inertia from going up or coming down a mountain, the book recalls The Magic Mountain. What it lacks is the pathological theme in Thomas Mann’s great modernist work, probably because Baume had already explored that so well in her previous novel, A Line Made by Walking.
I suppose, too, that the names Bell and Sigh are not insignificant. Ostensibly short forms of Isabel and Simon, they have a distinctly fairy – indeed tinker fairy – ring.
In one sense, they were ancient. In another sense, they were adolescent, or even infantile.
On one plane of interpretation, they are sexless, airy creatures, and there is something elfin in their approach to work. They are forever doing little tinkering jobs that have a touch of whimsy and play-acting about them.
Moreover, seven years is an enchanted stay of time: a period in which a human might drift without facing the consequences; a period in which a couple who acquire two stray, adult dogs might live in happiness before the shadow of death appears; a period in which an old stove might hold out against entropy; a period in which a landlord might indulge a poor couple before getting twitchy; a period in which romantic love’s bright devotion might survive undimmed; and – to get back to the question I raised in the opening paragraph – a period in which people might efface themselves without becoming finally effaced.
I should emphasise, however, that there is nothing twee in any of this. Like all of Sara Baume’s work, Seven Steeples is full of gritty realism. There is nothing soft-edged about the grime and the poverty, and throughout these enchanted seven years, nature remains red in tooth and claw.
Baume’s writing evinces a love of the infirm, the run-down, the rural, the unglamorous, the canine, the timeless. In some ways, Seven Steeples can be seen as an externalisation – or transfiguration even – of the subject-matter that was treated with compelling introspection in A Line Made by Walking. In her organic oeuvre, each fresh work offers new insights and intriguing complexities – the mark of a true artist.
Donal Moloney is a writer and translator from Waterford. His work has appeared in New Irish Writing (The Irish Times); The Moth; the Dublin Review of Books; Cork Words 2; Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (The Stinging Fly); Long Story, Short; Verge (Monash University); The Galway Review and Boyne Berries.