The novelist and artist Sara Baume has given me the gift of a mountain. It came wrapped in daffodil-yellow crepe paper. It sits between us on the hotel table; a little clay model, painted in green and brown, in orange and grey. She made it herself.
A mountain is a key inanimate character in Baume’s new book, Seven Steeples. It sits there, all-seeing over all those who live near it. It is full of the eyes of the birds and foxes and rabbits and all the other creatures who populate it. It overlooks the ramshackle isolated house where a couple, Bell and Sigh, have come to live, and who regard it daily but do not wish to conquer it.
Seven Steeples was written before the pandemic. It’s coincidentally prescient about the way we lived our lives during lockdown; lives that were reduced to so little, made so immobile, and were cut off from so much.
“It’s based on this couple who went to live in a remote place, which is what Mark [her partner of 11 years, to whom the book is dedicated] and I did, but we didn’t cut ourselves off from family and friends,” says Baume. “It’s true and not true, the same as everything I have written so far. Everything that I have written is based on the facts of my life.”
We are talking at a table outside a hotel near Rosscarbery, in west Cork. Baume lives a half-hour drive away, not far from Skibbereen. Earlier, we went for a walk together, along a road that winds between the ocean and undulating hillsides in west Cork. There were wading birds on the mud flats whose names she told me, and which I instantly forgot, distracted by the sunlight on the cyan-hued water, and the vast beauty of the lush landscape. Her rescue dog, a small collie named Tove (after the Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson), shadows us watchfully and cautiously from under the table, right up beside Baume; canine glue.
I had read Seven Steeples in one sitting earlier that week, and got up from my sofa feeling dazed. I looked around my living room and wondered what in it was watching me. The open chimney certainly was: an eye; a recurring motif in the book. The world Seven Steeples portrays is dystopian. Baume describes it as “a little bit magic realism” and it’s that, too.
The characters Bell (Isabel) and Sigh (Simon), described as “solitary misanthropes”, meet via friends in Dublin. They climb a mountain together with these friends. Then they take on another mountain; the one of a relationship. They move into an unpainted house in a rural part of the country with their two dogs, Pip and Voss. For the next seven years they go hardly anywhere, or do anything. Their world reduces to the details of the passing seasons, and the two of them grow more tightly into each other, like two trees becoming one.
“It’s been my slowest book,” says Baume. “I started it around 2017. I had been walking this road near our house with the dogs where we had recently moved. I saw how much and how little the road changed over the course of a year. I wondered if you could write an entire novel about a single road. That was my motivation: can I tell a story that is nothing to do with plot, but completely built out of these tiny blocks; the smallest chinks of meaning that you get in a day? The very small things.
“At the beginning, I would come up with just a few lines; tiny observations. The slick on a puddle. A piece of growth in a hedgerow. I would jot those down on a post-it when I got back in the morning, and then later on that day, I’d elaborate on that a little, and bulk it out into a paragraph. I did that incrementally.”
I didn't want to have anything in the novel about what they do for a living... There is no money, no sex, no arguments in the book
The seven steeples of the title – along with seven schools and seven standing stones – are what can be seen from atop the nearby unclimbed mountain Bell and Sigh wait and wait to climb.
The “tiny observations” Baume references are studded throughout the text like shining berries.
“All January the gorse across the house-facing side of the mountain remained sinuous and winter-stripped, like a mass of upside-down lightning strikes driven into the rock.
“She looked up and noticed a luminous tennis ball wedged in the gutter; a yellow felt moon partially eclipsed by roof.”
“The gold spandex sun of early autumn.”
The lives of Bell and Sigh are very small, and get smaller as the years drift by. “I didn’t want to have anything in the novel about what they do for a living. There are none of the big dramas of a life in it. There is no money, no sex, no arguments in the book. It is all very much boiled down to the essential things; they cook and eat and sleep. They walk the dogs. They get food occasionally, and they tidy up occasionally. I wanted the book to just be about those small details. The rituals we all perform. Like the touching of the dogs’ heads, as if it were a blessing, and the toasting of forks before they have dinner at night. Ridiculous things, but I think everyone does them.”
The years pass for Bell and Sigh, and new chapters continue to begin with an unclimbed mountain: “The mountain remained, unclimbed, for the first six years they lived there.” Each one ends with the image of an opened eye.
“In my head, Seven Steeples is in the voice of the mountain,” says Baume. “And the mountain can see everything. The mountain is God, more or less. The mountain sees everything, and it is telling a story. Each chapter opens with the mountain, and each chapter ends with the eye. The book has a central motif at its heart, which is these two people who gradually meld into one another. For me, it has a more abstract and spiritual feel to it than any of my other books.”
Seven Steeples is Baume’s fourth book. Her first, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), won several prizes. A Line Made by Walking (2017) was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. Handiwork (2020) was her first non-fiction book.
Her mother, Deborah, an archaeologist, is always her first and most trusted reader. I ask how that works, when writers are not recommended to have family reading their work-in-progress, due to innate bias?
“Really? Is that a thing?” says Baume robustly. Isn’t it generally accepted that those closest to us are not the best candidates as objective critics of our creative work? Or then again, is it generally accepted?
“I would say my mother is my harshest critic. She is so afraid of me making a fool of myself that she protects me. Her reading my work is almost talismanic.”
Baume has a number of now faded tattoos on her hands and forearms that I ask about. Prayer flags. Trees. Stars. Swallows. Windmills. The colours are pale. Pale blue. Pale yellow. When I mention them, she looks down with a kind of dismay, and automatically pulls at her sleeves.
“They are old art school tattoos,” she says. She got them aged 18 or 19, when a student at Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design. The swallows remind her of childhood: they used to return each year to nest at the family home. “But I learned later, after I got them done, that swallow tattoos are associated with prison. The swallow is like a symbol of freedom. When men in prison come out of prison, they get a swallow on their fist. I had no idea of this when I was 19.”
The trees symbolise the acorns her mother planted when she and her sister were born. The windmills are a memory of a former art project. She stares down at them. “I forget they are there most of the time. I kind of wish I had never gotten them now.”
My mother has a granny flat in her house. This is our fall-back plan for Mark and I
Earlier, while we were walking with the dog, the talk turned, as it so often does in Ireland, to housing. We are in an exceptionally scenic part of the country, and there are many holiday homes in the area, which are unoccupied for a significant part of the year. Baume talks about this with an edge in her voice. The waste. The resulting inflated prices.
“Mark and I moved to the country about five years before the pandemic and decided to live somewhere where the rent was low, and where we didn’t have to be shackled to day jobs. And we both wanted to live by the sea. We were both on social welfare for a number of years, and then I won the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award in 2014 and we went into the social welfare office and more or less said, ‘We’re fine now.’ [The prize was €15,000.] Since then we have been able to get by without social welfare. We’re not well-off, but we get by.”
The couple are renting, from a landlord she is effusive in praise of. They would like to invest in a garden, sow a vegetable plot, perhaps install a small greenhouse. Do the unremarkable but important things that are the sole privilege of homeowners and not tenants. They can’t do any of those things, and there is the undertow of uncertainty about the future that every tenant in Ireland has, no matter how decent the landlord.
“My mother has a granny flat in her house, where my grandmother lived for years. This is our fall-back plan for Mark and I. That would be fine. To be honest, we are lucky that we have that fall-back. Most families don’t. I have a nice lifestyle but there is a certain amount of uncertainty hanging over your head, but that’s the world today, isn’t it?” she says, sanguine. “I certainly wouldn’t be starting a pension fund at this moment in time. I wouldn’t anyway. My dad was 66 when he died, so I’m damned if I’m saving into a pension fund that I might not reap the benefits of.”
Baume has been consistently open in interviews over the years about not wanting children. A couple of years ago, she stated that she did not want them because looking after them would cause a lack of control. What did she mean by that?
“Did I say that? I probably did. I have always known I’ll never have kids, and I’m lucky to be with a man who feels the same. And I don’t mind talking about it. I know that you sacrifice a great deal of joy as well if you have kids. Obviously having kids would bring happiness too. So it’s a balancing act between all those things.
You can live with the uncertainty of renting if it is just the two of you and your dogs. But you can't put that kind of uncertainty on children
“Mark and I are closer to 40 than 20 now. I have never wanted children and nor has my partner, and I think we both feel it would be a loss of control. That suddenly you are responsible for something else; for someone. It is an enormous responsibility. And when you have such a strong attachment to your ordinary days, and the routines and rituals around them, I don’t think I could deal with that kind of disruption.”
She goes back to talking about housing again, and how renting long-term when there are no children involved, or planned for, is an easier lifestyle to cope with.
“You can live with the uncertainty of renting if it is just the two of you and your dogs. But you can’t put that kind of uncertainty on children. You’d need a more secure job, too. I feel I’m at a stage of my life where I’m clear about knowing I don’t want kids. But I mind my dogs, so I have this mothering instinct that all goes on the dogs.”
Baume is a self-confessed home bird who still lives in the county where she grew up, and a reluctant traveller. Stints abroad alone on various arts residencies in the last few years made her feel lonely and homesick. “My family is Mark and the dogs, and I miss them a lot. I felt a bit rudderless by myself.”
It has been two years since she was last in Dublin, “mainly because of the dogs – they are a huge tie”. So far, she has spent just one night away from Tove, who stayed under the table at their home for the entire time she was absent and would not come out.
Baume is doing a residency at the moment, but it’s a local one that isn’t residential. In her role as a visual artist, she is one of the artists with studio space at West Cork Arts Centre. “It’s only in Skibbereen, so I treat it like a day job,” she says.
While book five won’t be along for a while, there are some essays she wants to write. Plus the installation art project she is working on at West Cork Arts Centre.
“I have been making a series of model ships. Model container ships with sails. Which are supposed to be both kind of toy-like and a vision of the future.”
She takes out her phone and shows me the models she has been making. They are small, arresting, blocky cargo ships, with a bristling forest of Viking-like sails across the upper deck.
“The sails are made of cotton and barbecue skewers. I hand-sew the sails in the evening, and in the studio during the day I make the body of the ships. With the container ships project, I am trying to figure out how much stuff there is in the world.”
At one point, before they moved to west Cork, she and Mark lived in a house overlooking Cork Harbour.
“I was bemused by how, when people put an ornamental ship in their window, it’s always the tall ships with the beautiful sails. Sailing ships. It made me laugh, because when we lived in Whitegate, we were looking out over Cork Harbour, which is very industrial, so the ships we were seeing were mostly Navy ships and the container ships. We had a running joke that I would make a model container ship and put it in the window. I didn’t, but that is gradually how the idea took flight.”
When we are finished talking, Baume wonders aloud if I should or should not reveal the end of Seven Steeples in the interview. “It’s tricky,” she frets.
Do Bell and Sigh eventually climb the mountain? What happens if they do? What happens if they don’t? I pick up my own clay mountain and head for my car. It tumbles over on the passenger seat and its unpainted underside transforms into a large eye, staring up at me, as I slowly drive away, towards the city.
Seven Steeples by Sara Baume is published by Tramp Press