This week I have had a small break in my Costa submissions reading due to some logistics and so could read what I fancied for five days. I can’t really talk too much about Costa and how it works and the like I don’t think, though I am hoping to talk about some of the wonderful books which may not make our shortlist later in the year somehow, we will see. Anyway, I had the freedom to pick up anything I liked and so I went for A Line Made By Walking which has been calling me for a while partly because it has a fox on the cover and partly because it was on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize which celebrates daring writing and ‘fiction at its most novel’. Or as I see it quirky books that push the boundaries of writing and prose in some way, I was just in the mood for quirky and so in I went.
William Heinemann, hardback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
Walt Disney lied to me. The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience. Most days I make it too dark without anybody seeing me at all. Or at least anybody human.
I’ve been here in my grandmother’s bungalow a full three weeks now. All on my own. Except for the creatures.
Frankie, a young woman in her mid-twenties has left the big city for the safety of her familial homeland. However rather than live with her parents she has ended up temporarily staying in her recently deceased grandmothers house where in a mixture of depression and general lethargy towards life she spends slightly less time lying on the carpet pondering anything and everything than she did in the bright lights. Her mind wanders from items on the news (the Malaysian plane that disappeared), the paintings and sculptures she learnt about as she studied art and also nature, from deranged penguins who send themselves on suicide missions to the animals bouncing around at the end of the garden… or even some of the dead ones all whilst she tries to work out what everything means and where she fits in with it.
You might be thinking that this is really depressing and bleak, a pretentious novel about someone’s quarter life crisis or simply that this sounds really wanky; especially when I add that each of the dead animals becomes a chapter title in the book as well as being included as a slightly macabre image for you to ponder between a pair of paragraphs. If I told you Frankie tests herself on subjects dealt with by art, possibly to test her own feelings around those themes herself, from goldfish (Works about Goldfish, I test myself; I think and think. I can’t come up with a single one.) to death, then you might think this was even more pretentious twaddle. Yet she does. In many other authors hands this book would have annoyed the hell out of me by page twenty but under the creativity and instruction of Sara Baume I absolutely bloody loved this book.
I think one of the initial things that warmed me to the book so much was how relatable Frankie is as a character. Okay sometimes you do want to tell her to get a grip but there were so many times reading this book where I thought ‘ooh I have felt that’. Yes, once or twice in my life I have simply laid on a carpet for a few hours when I could have been doing something spectacular, or even just proactive, and thought about nothing much. Yes, there have been times when going to the supermarket simply feels like a hurdle and frankly you don’t want to make a meal for one you just want to curl up in bed with a chocolate bar (in fact those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I still occasionally fall asleep with a chocolate bar on special drunken occasions, but I am a grown-up I am allowed, don’t judge me). Frankie does all these things as she goes through those first awkward stages of being fully independent, sometimes the first try or two don’t work out. You have to start again. Oh, and something they forget to tell you at school is that sometimes being an adult is shit.
There was a Lidl a few streets away but I hated Lidl; it reminded me of the dole queue, only with vegetables. I’d pick up a basket from the doorway of the posh one and drift the aisles. I’d stand perfectly still and stare at an item for an uncomfortable length of time. Several other customers would come and go in the minutes it took me to remember whether I had any honey left, whether I prefer my tuna in oil or brine, whether or not I am able to tolerate wheat. Eventually I’d make it to the checkouts with a few random products sliding from side to side in my basket, and then at home again I’d lie on my floor for a couple of hours before going to bed with a bar of chocolate – something slightly revolting like a Double Decker or a Toffee Crisp – because only the slightly revolting chocolate bars were evocative of childhood.
Yet adulthood and that phase between being mildly independent to fully independent is actually just the first layer of Frankie’s situation, not to make her sound like an onion. It becomes clear as we read on that Frankie is suffering from some kind of depression. This isn’t just someone being a bit lazy and over dramatic as we initially think, though often these moments add a dark bittersweet comedy often without feeling at the expense of anyone who is going through this themselves. This is someone who is lost, lonely, overly worried at life and not quite able to communicate with those around her in the way that she would like, in fact often she can’t even see when other people are trying to reach out to her, particularly her parents.
‘Well,’ he says. ‘How are you, then? Your mother’s woeful fucking worried.’
My father doesn’t really want to talk about my feelings. That would be excruciating for both of us. He only wants me to tell him that I am okay, so he can return to my mother and tell her there is no need to worry.
‘I’m okay,’ I say. ‘There’s no need to worry.’
Somewhat unintentionally though, once away from the city and indeed her family and taking her loneliness to an extreme two things start to help her start sorting all the things going on in her mind. The first is nature, as I mentioned alive and dead which on the one hand sends her often to look at moments in her childhood which seem minimal but have actually had a more profound (or rippling) effect than would first seem and make so much sense in the context of the relationships she has in her adult life. Oh how we are formed by those, well, informative years. Cliched but so true.
When I was little I had a friend called Georgina who lived a quarter mile up the road. For her sixth birthday, she got a white rabbit and named it Snowball. For roughly a fortnight, Snowball lived in a pretty timer hutch on the back lawn, fortressed by a wire mess run. Then one morning, Georgina went out to find a jagged hole in the mesh and the rabbit gone. Her mother told her this wasn’t the horrific tragedy it appeared; Snowball had simply made the decision to go and live in the fields with her wild friends instead. Georgina passed this story on to me in the playground, and I passed it on to my sister, and she laughed and declared it a load of crap.
Now it seems she was wrong to be so cynical so young.
As she discovers several deceased animals she starts her own project to photograph those she finds dead, no animals are allowed to be killed by herself (though there is one heart breaking section of the book where she does have to and is a hugely emotional moment for her – and the reader – but is written utterly beautifully and is also a kind of catalyst for her) and start her own kind of artistic project. It also helps her deal with grief and see things at more of a distance/in clearer focus through a lense. Art is also something which she uses to ‘test herself’ as she tries to look at art when it depicts an item, feeling or situation that helps her to analyse herself. Two in particular I think relate to and reflect upon varying states of her feelings…
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1980… An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking. A murder of crows between the stalks and the sky as though they are departing or have just been disturbed.
Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass.
Again, this should have put me off as books about art do as much for me about books about music. Bar a few exceptions (Jessie Burton’s The Muse is one which I really must review) I find it very difficult to conjure a painting just like I can’t conjure music for the written word, yet here with Baume’s prose and Frankie’s outlook and the way she analyses these works I oddly could. It shouldn’t have worked but it did and it has – though this could also be partly due to becoming a Tate member as well a recent trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao wandering galleries on my own– made me think about art in a way that I don’t often and one which is summed up beautifully in the book. Even still, art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.
I could go on about some smaller but equally brilliant parts of the book; how well it deals with loneliness and feeling lost, the mother and daughter relationship and its complexities and unspoken moments, the way Baume looks at the news and how much fear and worry it can add to our lives, the sense of worry and slight dread you feel for Frankie and the completely unexpected and yet so right ending, the random facts Frankie learns that mean so much without you realising and I will also be using in conversations in the future, etc., etc. I should really wrap this up though…
So, I shall just end this by saying that I urge you to read A Line Made By Walking. It was a risky pick when my brain was somewhat frazzled and it is quite out of my comfort zone in terms of topics but I loved it, possibly all the more for executing it so well and making me think so much. I will certainly be heading to Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither in the future, as well as some of the other Goldsmiths Prize 2017 shortlist. It has also reminded me how I need to try more quirky/novel books, so do get recommending me some.