“They had planned, in the beginning, to furnish only provisionally. No additional shelving, they had agreed, no new appendages to the fabric of the house. Nothing painted, nothing installed, nothing screwed down.”
Meet Bell and Sigh, the “post-family, post-doctrine, post-consumerism” couple at the centre of Sara Baume’s new novel, though to say “at the centre” is probably misleading, for this is a book about two adults who try their hardest not to feature, who have determined to live outside society and leave no trace.
The Leave No Trace movement, which began in the 1960s, espouses conservation of the natural world through minimal human impact, an approach that is based on seven principles. This number crops up frequently in Seven Steeples – the title, the timespan of the narrative, a hill from whose summit “you can see seven standing stones, seven schools, and seven steeples”. This is perhaps a coincidence, but one imagines not.
The story is summed up easily: two misanthropic introverts meet through mutual friends and decide to leave behind their city lives for a rundown house in the remote southwest of Ireland. Where a conventional novel might linger in the newness of the union, the strangeness of the move, most of the action in Seven Steeples is summarised in a matter of pages, the messy business of character and back story dispensed with in one striking sentence:
“Neither had experienced any unusual unhappiness in early life, any notable trauma. Instead they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear.”
It takes a writer of quality and courage to make narrative choices like this. Fans of Baume will know her to be both. The Cork author’s previous work includes Spill Simmer Falter Wither, A Line Made by Walking, and her non-fiction debut, handiwork. She has won the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award, the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize, an Irish Book Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
There are threads that link her books, filigrees of theme and style: a preoccupation with outsiders, a love of walking and the natural world, a marked perspicacity on the creative process, grief, what it means to be alive.
There is something both idyllic and apocalyptic about the scenario, which is ably rendered through an objective, unemotive tone
handiwork explored all of these things, in the home she called “a house of industry”. The house in Seven Steeples is the inverse: a place where nothing seems to get done, made, created. Rather, there is a turning away from life as we know it, from society, in favour of things that can be salvaged, stored, scrounged. Contact is slowly lost with the outside world through passive-aggressive means, non-adversarial no-replies to emails and phone calls, until eventually people get the message and leave them alone.
There is something both idyllic and apocalyptic about the scenario, which is ably rendered through an objective, unemotive tone, enlivened by Baume’s ethereal prose. The narrative style is unintrusive, a camera lens panning the surrounding world and recording the wonders of nature, before contrasting this with the clutter that can fill up a life; Marie Kondo meets literary fiction.
In its shrewd commentary about how we live today and its yearning for a better way, there are shades of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are you?. Other more obvious comparisons are the arresting nature writing of Kerri ní Dochartaigh and the Scottish author Amy Liptrot. But where the latter’s books also document psychological learnings, Baume steers clear of interiority in much the same way she avoids action. A trip to the dentist or an afternoon shaving pencils is about as exciting as things get.
The lack of a plot, as such, will undoubtedly not appeal to some readers. But in another way, if plot is the causal chain that connects characters and events, then Seven Steeples is nothing but plot, which is to say the delineation of the daily life of a couple who have chosen to escape from society.
Throughout, commonplace things are depicted in inventive language in a way that recalls that old literary war cry to “make it new”, or Kavanagh’s “wallowing in the habitual, the banal”. We get “lettuce leaves fluttering down the waste chute”, a “three-seater sofa with curlicue Latin calligraphy”, the “rash of mildew” in the bathroom, “the sterile cherry trees”, and “bleached-out litter” of the surrounding landscape. By the end, there is the sense that every inch of terrain has been recorded and expounded on.
Baume is an original, and Seven Steeples is a unique book that asks the reader to think about the possibility of a world of one’s own.