Seven Steeples by Sara Baume review – an astonishing prose poem | fiction

The Irish writer and artist Sara Baume is still best known for her 2015 debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither; Seven Steeples, her third novel by her, is a glacially beautiful book. I am almost certain it’s a ghost story, but it’s a novel that gives up its secrets warily. Bell and Sigh are a couple who leave the city with their dogs to rent a cottage by the sea and withdraw steadily from their lives, seeking to live in an atmosphere of continuous temporariness. I couldn’t help but think of the ring of bells and the sound of sighs as stock motifs of ghost stories the world over.

But I believe this novel will mean profoundly different things to different readers, because its own presiding spirit is surely Elizabeth Bishop, who worked so carefully at keeping feeling unspoken under the surface of her poetry, only revealing the heart through the physical world: she understood that emotion would shine out through detail, through specific, close observation. As if in tribute, Baume offers up an astonishing prose poem that keeps close religiously and lovingly to the physical throughout.

Bell, the female character, has a habit of “touching things to draw blessedness out of them”, and this is absolutely what Baume is doing throughout. In the paraphernalia of a life, its coffee grinds and washing lines, love and meaning are hiding – because all the meaning in our lives happens around these things, our little days, so where else would it end up secreted?

From time to time, the reader is teased with a glimpse of some possible catastrophe that might have prompted the couple’s retreat from the world – a mouse dies “of trauma”; Bell and Sigh see “a solid mass the size of a premature foetus” on the beach, and mistake a thistle growing by their house for a child “ten times a day” (the novel aches with the absence of children). They love looking at maps online because on the internet they can “go back in time”, which feels like the revelation of a deeply felt wish. But the revelation never quite comes, in a way that is haunting and dreamlike and wonderful to read.

What is shared instead is a record of two people who “had imagined, in the beginning, that if everything they owned was old and shoddy, even ugly, certainly nearing the end of its useful life, then they would better be able to bear its lose”. Their project, of course, eventually fails – they fall in love with these ugly, shoddy, temporary things, because they are their lives. In the meantime, though, Baume catalogs the accrual of dirt, broken things and insect bites – one way of totting up a life. Her novel by Ella powerfully recalls the middle act of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, that heart-stoppingly moving depiction of time passing through an empty house, of loss accumulating.

At the novel’s end, Baume finally sends her protagonists up the mountain they live on, a climb they’ve been meaning to get round to for seven years. Looking back at their house with them, I felt I was given a revelation of what had been going on all this time – but what I saw will be very different from how the story looks in the eyes of others. That is the magic and the brilliance of this haunting, fathomlessly sad book.

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume is published by Tramp Press (£11.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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