Book Review: A Line Made by Walking

A Line Made by Walking Book Cover A Line Made by Walking
Sara Baume
Random House
February 16, 2017
320

Struggling to cope with urban life-and life in general-Frankie, a twenty-something artist, retreats to her family's rural house on "turbine hill," vacant since her grandmother's death three years earlier.

It is in this space, surrounded by countryside and wild creatures, that she can finally grapple with the chain of events that led her here-her shaky mental health, her difficult time in art school-and maybe, just maybe, regain her footing in art and life. As Frankie picks up photography once more, closely examining the natural world around her, she reconsiders seminal works of art and their relevance.

With "prose that makes sure we look and listen," Sara Baume has written an elegant novel that is as much an exploration of wildness, the art world, mental illness, and community as it is a profoundly beautiful and powerful meditation on life.


Book Review:

Frankie is a struggling artist seeking meaning in her life. Her dull and depressive personality is reflected in her dull and drab life barely lived in poky bedsits and shared houses. From the replaying of traumatic incidents as a child, it becomes obvious that Frankie has been trapped in a prison of fear her entire life which peaks after her grandmother dies. She moves into her grandmother’s house in the hope that it will help with her inability to deal with the demands of life.

The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.

Even though it becomes clear to those around her that she is going off the deep-end, she refuses to dull her senses with psychiatric medication. This hints at a condition that has plagued artists and writers for generations and leans towards existential angst rather than actual depression. Her sense of isolation is handled adroitly by the author and gives the reader a window into the world of someone struggling with this type of malaise without ever resorting to the clichéd angst-ridden artist or manic depressive.

And I felt like such a failure. I thought: I can’t even do mental illness properly.

Frankie’s existential angst starts rather strangely with the smelling of a carpet and manifests in an obsession with photographing dead animals which she finds a twisted beauty in, although this pursuit serves more as a form of therapy than actual art. She lets herself go and occasionally takes on the archetypal role of ‘eccentric artist’ which lands her in some embarrassing situations.

It started with the smelling of a carpet.

At times it felt like the constant references to art-works being deployed as a literary device impinged on the story to the point where it almost crossed into author intrusion. As a result I found it hard to shake the feeling that it was an attempt by the author to display her art credentials. Most of the references were to post-modernist artists (art types – feel free to correct me) which to the ‘uninitiated’ is often code for all that is pretentious and vacuous in the art world. To readers lacking an artistic temperament, this profusion of ‘works about’ art lessons throughout the entire story could be perceived as an annoyance as much as a contrivance.

Works about Lower, Slower Views, I test myself: Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass. Long doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which he walks, but sometimes he builds sculptures from materials supplied by chance. Then he leaves them behind to fall apart. He specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space as possible. And which do as little damage.

Frankie’s lack of genuine, heart-felt emotions are distinctly noticeable. Her experiences are often too cerebral and disconnected with the result that I found it hard to feel anything for her or connect with her on an emotional level. It would be easy to explain this away as being a difference in age or gender being that Frankie’s character is a 26 year old female whereas I am 20 years older and male but would be too hasty a conclusion.

What is it about crying? As if my body believes that squeezing all its salt out might somehow quell the sadness. As if sadness is a parasite which suckles on sodium chloride.

I admit that there was much about Frankie’s experiences that I could relate to as a twenty-something year old living in dingy bedsits and flats in Dublin and London. Seen from that perspective, Baume’s story is close to the bone even if I couldn’t decide if there was a touch of schadenfreude or if I genuinely felt for Frankie, whose life  is sad in all senses of the word.

Now I look like a perfectly regular person, definitively not a genius. It took me five years of formal education to figure out what I truly wanted to be was an outsider artist, and that it was too late.

Frankie’s nature could also be described as being overly solipsistic. Until and during her ‘breakdown’ it seemed to her that the world didn’t exist outside of herself and believed she had some kind of extraordinary powers which didn’t quite work properly. The more sensitive souls will recognise this as a likely reaction to the loss of enchantment that she, like many other children, experience at some point in their lives.

That wave was the onset of consciousness. The moment it broke the moment at which I realised I was not indestructible, that the world was filled with forced separate to me, hostile to be, horrifyingly beyond my control.

A Line Made by Walking has all the elements of a great book and should sit comfortably alongside other works of literature featuring ‘outsiders’. Baume displays a natural story-telling flair and is one of the most exciting female writers to emerge from Ireland in recent years. While her keen eye for detail and ability to peel back the layers of reality is impressive, I was still left wanting more. Like Frankie, I waited around for a revelation and nothing arrived. But perhaps that is the whole point of the story.

And yet, here I am. Perceiving everything that is wonderful to be proportionately difficult; everything that is possible an elaborate battle to achieve. My happy life was never enough for me. I always considered my time to be more precious than that of other people and almost every routine pursuit – equitable employment, domestic chores, friendship – unworthy of it. Now I see how this rebellion against ordinary happiness is the greatest vanity of them all.

Review copy courtesy of Random House UK, Cornerstone & William Heinemann

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