A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is the second novel in my 2017 challenge to read a work of literary fiction every month by a novelist new to me; this one is a little late, so I’ll have some catching up to do.
What drew me to this work was the title – it is shared by the very early work of one of my favourite artists, Richard Long. It consists of a black and white photo of a path the artist had worn in a field of grass simply by walking backwards and forwards in a straight line. It was the forerunner of works that Long made in the landscape using natural materials and a sense of an ephemeral impact on nature. I find Long’s works very inspiring, and I had to find out what a novel with such an iconic title has to offer.
The novel’s protagonist is Frankie, in her mid-20s. She has escaped from life in Dublin’s bedsits and box rooms in shared houses to the sprawling bungalow of her recently-dead grandmother in the countryside , under the shadow of a wind turbine. She studied Fine Art, and worked in a gallery, until she just had to run away. She knows her mental health is disintegrating, and this novel, told in her voice and seen through her eyes, charts her struggle to hold on.
The narrative moves on through encounters with natural creatures, focusing on the natural world and the starkness of life and death in it. These creatures are dead (warning to Jackie – not one for Wussy Foxes, this novel). Frankie attempts to put structure to her existence with the creation of a work of art. Her camera is her tool, always with her. She takes a photograph of each wild creature she encounters; she makes rules – the creature must have dies of external causes, she must encounter it, not contribute to its death. The landscape is not a beautiful picture, like a Joe Cornish calendar: it is a place of precarious life and certain death. Throughout, Frankie internally chronicles her striving to regain mental equilibrium, the conscious effort she has to make to remember to shop and cook and eat, her struggles with domesticity. Her ancient car and her grandmother’s old bike connect her to the world of shops and doctors and hospitals, and her mother and sister keep a distant, loving eye on her, appearing once in a while. There is courage and resilience here, wisdom too, on both sides of a family disruption.
As she consciously wills herself to go through the motions of living, Frankie tests herself on her recollection (which is encyclopaedic) of modern art, particularly conceptual art. If the reader is puzzled by or even contemptuous of conceptual art, this novel makes the most fantastic case for it I have yet encountered – This is the best of conceptual art: she says at one point by means of nominal material, vast feeling is evoked. She constantly brings to mind in a lapidary phrase the artist and the work evoked by what she has encountered or experienced; A Line Made By Walking is one of them. We are ‘seeing’ these works through Frankie’s eyes. At the end of the book there is a catalogue of the artists and their works that Frankie has called to mind, and Sara Baume the author encourages her readers to discover and respond to them for themselves. I am thoroughly encouraged.
Despite the fact that Frankie is going through the anguish of mental breakdown, with associated paranoia and challenge to self-care, she is one of the most alive characters I have ever encountered in a novel. All her senses are engaged, her artist’s powers of conveying with her inner voice what she sees and senses are overwhelming. Sara Baume’s own power of conveying this on the page means that this novel, even while it describes death in nature in graphic terms, is exuberantly alive; the language of the novel, exclusively Frankie’s own voice, has unique energy and beauty. We are left uncertain of what is in store for Frankie, but this reader values her insights, finds her intensely, irritatingly loveable, and deeply cares that there is a world somewhere in which she can live.