“Seven Steeples” by Sara Baume
At the beginning of this tale, Bell and Sigh are just settling in to their new abode near the sea. We know nothing of their backgrounds, ages, temperaments or what brought them to this remote place…and we never find out throughout the book. We do know that Bell is a woman and Sigh is a man and they have two dogs, Pip and Voss. We learn a little more about them — Pip is a laid back lurcher, Voss a typical hyperactive, overprotective terrier. There is no dialogue in the book, no dramatic turns of fate, not even any disagreements of import between the couple.
Nevertheless we come to learn a great deal about this strange couple as we read. They don’t care much about possessions or housekeeping. In the first year of their residency several items in the bathroom had “plummeted down the toilet”, never to be retrieved and that Bell and Sigh “had lost interest in the activity of being reunited with their possessions. Unmarked boxes with their top flaps still taped shut had been relegated to the most-avoided corners of their least-used rooms. Neither of them, in an entire year, had suffered the absence of what these boxes contained, and so they ignored them”.
They do pay attention to their dogs and to their routines, taking Pip and Voss out for morning and evening walks whatever the weather — which does get very nasty at times, the only clue to what sea coast they might be on. Ireland, probably, but we never really know. They think about cleaning the cobwebs away from corners or sorting out their worn out clothes to be donated, but they never get around to actually doing anything and the house gradually slides into squalor.
The reader wonders where the landlord of this place is, and he does show up a couple of times to tend to the worst of the disrepair, but Bell and Sigh are otherwise left alone. Always looming over the house and the story is a mountain, unclimbed and unknown to the couple, other than its existence, until the end. No spoilers here.
So why read this book? Because of the writing; it’s prose poetry really with the occasional spaces between words and lines endemic to poetry. Who knew a list of insects, bacteria, mold and dust could be of such great interest as to lead the reader to look it over again just to see the words and feel their rhythm? In fact, nearly every line of this slender novel should be read at least twice to appreciate Sara Baume’s mastery of language.
Seven Steeples may be bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s one of those books that stays with you, makes you wonder how you would live if you were in an isolated house in the woods or on a rocky coastline, how you would spend your days and if you could actually do it. Recommendation: Read it.
Thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for the eARC.