Gifted Cork author is at the peak of her powers

As Billy O'Callaghan launched Sara Baume's latest book - Seven Steeples - in Waterstones this week, he praised his fellow Cork author as a 'rare type, with a style all her own'. 
Gifted Cork author is at the peak of her powers

Sarah Davis Gough (L) and Lisa Coen (R) both of Tramp Press with Billy O'Callaghan and Sara Baume. Picture: Waterstones

A LINE from a review I read a few years back has stayed with me: “Good books remind us of other good books...”

Sara Baume is a unique and massive talent. The way Sara writes, the pure broad and fine artistry of her vision, is something to savour.

Nobody writes with quite her elegant touch or breadth of feeling, but if Seven Steeples, gloriously good book that it is, brings other books to mind, as that review I quoted from suggests it should, then the one I seem to have aligned it with is V.S. Naipaul’s gorgeous novel, The Enigma Of Arrival.

It isn’t a book that can be summed up in a few easy sentences, but might be described as an idyllic and melancholic paean to Naipaul’s adopted Wiltshire, around Stonehenge, that becomes, in the most languid fashion but with increasingly heightened awareness, a soulfully deep exploration and reflection of what it means to be alive, in a particular place and as part of it, and how time’s passing and the shifting seasons change and shape us as well as the landscape at large.

That Sara’s latest offering stands favourable comparison with Naipaul’s masterpiece is as towering a compliment as I can possibly pay.

They are entirely different books, of course, but in terms of innovation and ambition, Seven Steeples shares with Naipaul’s new kind of novel a daring push against traditional structural boundaries and also the mining of a particularly quiet but exceedingly profound and in its own way almost unbearably intense kind of drama.

What we have here is, in all the best senses of the word, something truly special.

This is the story of Bell and Sigh, a couple of young solitaries drawn into love who, in deciding to be solitary together, settle with their dogs, Pip and Voss, in a quiet rural corner of the country, beneath a mountain, to live as one and live whole.

Except, of course, it is not quiet at all but a natural world wildly and avidly alive. They walk, they see and listen and sense, gradually, all there is and all they are and could be, both individually and as one.

All of this, across seven years – understanding that “Time is to stop everything happening at once”.

And always, year after year left unclimbed, is the mountain: “Gently and unspectacularly it ascended from the Atlantic, as if it had accumulated its stature over centuries. As if, over centuries, it had steadily flattened itself upwards. It was the shape of a prehistoric bank, a drove of smoke, an obliterating wave, a mud and rock and foliage barrier, impeding, protecting.”

Sara Baume is a rare type. Most writers find their voice only years along, developing at glacial speed, but she is one of maybe just a handful or so that I can think of who seemed to arrive into publication already fully-formed, with a style all of her own, her touch with a sentence and her confidence with structure from the very beginning so ambitious and assured.

Reading this book, and especially reading it from a writer’s perspective, the overwhelming sense is of a writer comfortable with her great gift and in note-perfect control of the work being crafted and composed.

The writing in Seven Steeples is just joyful – the language oozing poetry; the determination to, as John Updike once put it, “give the mundane its beautiful due”; the instinctive precision of the sentences’ rhythms; the hyper-awareness of the descriptions that page after page stopped me cold to sit with them a while, savouring their visions, down to their smallest and most essential truth.

There’ll be plenty of good books published this year, as there are every year both at home and abroad, but I don’t think you’ll read many, or indeed any, quite like this one.

Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, published by Tramp press. Available now.

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