Book cover
Seven Steeples
Sara Baume

This is a 200 page prose-poem in which nothing happens. And what doesn’t happen is so deeply observed and poetically revealed it reminded me a bit of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. But its a very different book. It’s hard to describe what it’s about exactly. The devolution of identity I suppose, in the context of what Vonnegut, in Cat’s Cradle, called a duprass: “A valuable instrument for gaining and developing, in the privacy of an interminable love affair, insights that are queer but true,” and “a sweetly conceited establishment.” That’s kind of like what’s depicted here, except the duprass of Bell and Sigh in Seven Steeples is dingy and somehow dark. I suppose any life this closely and minutely detailed would be dingy in its way, and maybe that’s the point. As a somewhat fastidious person I was definitely grossed out from time to time.

And then there’s the darkness, a sinister undercurrent despite the absence of any evil. Or perhaps it is a pall of sadness never articulated. Bell and Sigh are withdrawn, and their lives revealed closely, without really telling us what they think or feel. There are maybe, at most, four or five short lines of dialog, inner or otherwise, here. It’s as though as Bell and Sigh withdraw themselves from community, the author withdraws us from their interior state. Whatever is happening here is very affective.

At the end of her remarkable life, international bad girl Lola Montez wrote of the quiet community she found herself in (emphasis mine):

What would I give to have daily fellowship with these good people! To teach in the school, to visit the old, the sick, the poor. But that will be in the Lord’s good time, when self is burned out of me completely.

I thought of this while reading Seven Steeples. Bell and Sigh are burning with a sort of dual-self, and it consumes them entirely. All else is kept at a safe distance.

Baume is an elegant and idiosyncratic writer. The print version makes use of layout and spacing for poetic effect, and this is captured perfectly in the audio book performance by Aoife McMahon. (Aside: Has any people on earth dreamt up more beautiful names than the Irish?) Her clipped, precise enunciation, lovely voice, and careful unhurried white-space capture what’s on the page beautifully. This is a book to simply experience. Let it do what it will with your mind.