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Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction
seven steeples

By Jo Nestor

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Sara Baume burst onto my bookshelf in 2015 with her award-winning debut, Spill Simmer Falter Winter. It’s marvellous, and was also one of the first publications, if not the inaugural, by the Irish publishing powerhouse, Tramp Press. Since then, I’ve been a stalwart fan of Baume’s writing, both in style and content.

Seven Steeples is Baume’s fourth published book. The cover is an object of splendid beauty in itself, depicting a photograph. Sara’s explanation of this image gives an indication of the kind of intricate detail to expect in her writing. She describes the cover photograph as,

‘… a drawing in cotton on canvas that I made in 2021, and [which] is based on a drawing in pencil on a yellow post-it that Mark Beatty made in 2020.’

The title, Seven Steeples, refers to the view from the top of the mountain that overlooks two-storey rented accommodation in West Cork, where the two main protagonists have moved to live:

‘From the top of the nearby mountain, they are told, you can see seven standing stones, seven schools, and seven steeples. All you have to do is climb.’

The irony is that it takes both characters, Bell (Isabel) and Sigh (Simon), seven years to complete that climb. But when they do … well, you’ll have to read the book to find out, not just about why it takes them so long, but what happens when they do.

Such is Sara Baume’s storytelling ability, to elevate the unremarkable to a place of supreme importance, that my reading experience of Seven Steeples was akin to viewing the minutiae of life – verges, blossom, seashores, carpets, dashboards – through a magnifying glass. This, coupled with sprinkles of humour, meant reading Seven Steeples felt like I was being treated to frequent glimpses of vibrant ‘rain-dogs’, those remarkable paintbrush dashes of rainbow so prolific across Irish landscapes. Take this, for example:

‘A fetid puddle surrounded the drain outside the kitchen door – an oily soup of the traces of once-eaten substances, meandering around lady’s bedstraw and lesser hawkbit, drowning the shamrock … the landlord was called to unblock the drain.’

I could see and smell that ‘fetid puddle’, recognising it from lived experience. I mean, who among us hasn’t had a blocked drain, huh? But who writes about such mundane things with this allure and humour, engaging her reader? Well, Sara Baume does.

Her botanic knowledge, in particular, is as informative as it is enjoyable to read. There doesn’t seem to be a plant or tree she isn’t familiar with, although it does take Sigh and Bell a while to learn as much.

‘In the ditches, stitchwort, silverweed and hogweed sparred for position. In the garden, a row of lilies along the west wall reached taller than the grass, taller than the dogs, taller than the wall itself. They were not quite lily-white, but ivory.’

Sigh and Bell live with their two dogs, Pip and Voss, both of whom are larger-than-life characters in their own right. Throughout the storytelling, Sara’s familiarity with dog ownership is clearly authentic. Dog owners everywhere will recognise the inherent angst that occurs when a beloved pet, off the lead, becomes engrossed in something with which its humans aren’t privy, like in this passage:

‘Bell and Sigh were furious with Pip when she ran away, but only at first, at the stage at which she was running and they were shouting her name and being ignored. By the time she ambled up the driveway, hours after the official walk had ended … they were only ever relieved.’

As with her extensive knowledge of flora and fauna, Sara Baume has an extraordinary ability to describe Irish weather with a poignant accuracy. I can identify absolutely with this description of fickle Irish spring weather:

‘April was a vacillating month. One day it was summer-like, the road-wide puddles receding, leaving behind their spectre in a brown scum. The next it was winter again, drops of cold rain clinging to the new buds, to every prong of the barbed wires.’

The Financial Times is quoted as saying: ‘Baume’s writing is near-flawless: instinctively balanced, precise and often surprising.’

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of the exquisite book, A Ghost in the Throat, says of Seven Steeples that, ‘… [it] makes you feel that you’re seeing everything through new eyes.’

seven steeplesI wholeheartedly agree with both of these endorsements, and recommend this book to all lovers of fresh, thought-provoking prose. Drink it in, and happy reading, folks.

(c) Jo Nestor

Jo Nestor is a retired Adult Educator. Twice long-listed for the FISH memoir competition, she won the Leitrim Guardian Literary Award, 2020. Her writing features in the 2021 edition of the broadsheet, Autumn Leaves, the Leitrim Guardian, and at www.writing.ie . She chooses to live in hope.

Order your copy of Seven Steeples online here.

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