THERE IS something of a desolate feeling about the opening line of Sara Baume’s second novel, A Line Made By Walking, just published by Tramp Press: “A smudged-sky morning, mid-spring. And to mark it, a new dead thing, a robin."
The atmosphere of death and desolation continues: "Somehow, they always find me. Crouching in the cavernous ditches and hurling themselves under the wheels of my Fiesta. Toppling from the sky to land at my feet. And because my small world is coming apart in increments, it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too. They are being killed with me; they are dying for me."
Then, abruptly, comes an upbeat note, the personal test: “Works about Falling, I test myself: Bas Jan Ader, 1970", thus setting the tone of the novel. The protagonist, Frankie, withdraws from society, remains anonymous and almost genderless - in fact it is not until the second half of the novel that the reader discovers Frankie is a woman - walking something of a thin line between sanity and insanity, occasionally hinting at suicide.
As the book progresses we learn Frankie is an aspiring artist who had worked in a Dublin Gallery and had led something of a desultory life. Her grandmother’s death gives her the opportunity to withdraw from society as she moves into her relative’s decrepit cottage situated halfway up an isolated mountain. As the narrative continues, so does the protagonist’s sense of the absurdity of her own existence, and the barrenness of her physical surroundings. Then she shrugs off her own helplessness testing herself by naming a work of art relevant to the prevalent emotion of the narration.
This is a dark novel, plumbing the depths of despair and loneliness, and driven by a prevailing sense of angst. Underneath the darkness, there is the sense of the author challenging herself to make sense of humanity and existence and reaching towards a synthesis echoed by Seamus Heaney when he writes: “If art teaches us anything, he says, trumping life/With a quote, it’s that the human condition is private.”
In challenging herself, Baume also challenges the reader and the experience can be uncomfortable. However, the strength and power of both her writing and her narrative voice make that experience worthwhile. Perhaps the final paragraph underlines life’s ultimate challenge:
“Works about Trees, I test myself, the final test, I promise, Joseph Beuys 7000 Oaks. The first planted in Kassel in 1982. The mission was to plant seven thousand, each coupled with a basalt stone, four foot high. A symbolic beginning, predetermined to continue through time across continents. And so it did, does, Italy, America, England, Ireland, Norway, Australia. After Beuys had stopped panting them for himself, after he died. The oaks which grow. The stones which don’t. Art and sadness, which last for ever.”
In A Line Made By Walking, Sara Baume challenges our sense of reality. It is a challenge worth facing.
Sara Baume reads with Jenni Fagan and Paul Kingsworth in the Nuns Island Theatre on Sunday April 30 at 2pm as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Tickets are €10/8 from the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).