Stuart Kelly

Everyday unhappiness

Almost every page of A Line Made By Walking has a sentence that I’d gladly record and remember, says Stuart Kelly

Everyday unhappiness
Text settings

A Line Made by Walking

Sara Baume

Heinemann, pp. 312, £

This is an extraordinarily compelling novel for one in which nothing really happens but everything changes. Sara Baume’s narrator is Frankie, a 26-year-old art school graduate, who has fled Dublin to live in her dead grandmother’s rural bungalow. What happened to her ‘started with the smelling of carpet’ in her bedsit; she feels such a failure that she ‘can’t even do mental illness properly’. It is all ‘because of nothing… because there’s nothing right with me. Because I cannot fucking help it.’ Over the course of part of a year, she acquires a bicycle from a born-again Christian, allows her father to mow the lawn, takes care of a guinea-pig for her sister, and tries to summon the ghost of her grandmother. She also thinks a lot about art — the text is punctuated with Frankie’s interrogations of herself (‘Works about the Sea, I test myself’, ‘Works about Lying, I test myself’) — and with her own art project, photographing roadkill. The chapters are headed ‘Robin’, ‘Rabbit’, ‘Rat’, ‘Mouse’, ‘Rook’ and so on, and feature a picture of the unfortunate animal.

Those who have read Baume’s intriguing debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, will recognise some of this already: an estranged narrator trying to connect with the world via animals and injuries, the non-human as revelatory and epiphanies of everyday unhappiness (‘Now I look like a perfectly regular person, definitely not a genius,’ Frankie realises). What makes it so gripping is that the reader is trapped in Frankie’s mind as much as she is; every tiny detail is magnified into metaphysical significance that she cannot understand and that the reader cannot parse.

Almost every page has a sentence or an observation that made me wish I had a commonplace book to transcribe Frankie’s — or Baume’s — precisely opaque and fleeting thoughts. Frankie’s surreal and yet understandable mind-patterns are eloquent as well as awful:

Last thing at night, every night, I adjusted that ornament until it was precisely aligned with an invisible point which I perceived to represent completion, and if I didn’t get it absolutely right, then something monstrous would happen to me or someone close to me, or so I believed: some dolphin-induced catastrophe.

Anyone who suffers from anxiety will recognise that preternatural thinking — the unnecessary rituals, the tip-tap needs, the pointless liturgies to stave away disaster. On the dust-jacket Joseph O’Connor says that Baume is ‘a writer touched by greatness’. I think she is bruised by it.