Book Review: Seven Steeples

“Bell and Sigh were curious to see what would happen when two solitary misanthropes tried to live together”

Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, is set in and around a remote and decaying house in the south-west of Ireland. It follows a young couple through seven years of their lives during which they do everything they can to live apart from other people. Other than the essentials for survival they make few purchases, managing without when things break. Their days are habitual. They gain pleasure from walking their locality, observing and discussing the small changes that occur due to: human activity and carelessness, seasonal change.

The story opens in early January. Bell and Sigh arrive at the house they have arranged to rent, bringing with them a single van load of possessions and their dogs, that must now get used to living together as a family. The couple first met the previous summer, to climb a mountain with mutual friends. He worked in a factory, she as a waitress. They are happy to leave Dublin behind, along with their large families and exigent friends.

The house overlooks a farm and what may be a large hill or a small mountain. It is not the most salubrious of residences but it suits its new occupants well. They feel no need to be fastidious in their habits. They relish the space they now have all to themselves.

Days are spent enacting routine tasks, all the while observing each change in their surrounds. They tend to their garden although have little luck in attempts to grow food there. Sigh fishes with more success. Both swim in the sea regularly. They keep the house as they want without concern for social convention.

As time passes they shed all wider obligations, happy to lose contact with people who previously expected to spend time with them. Other than the farmer, their landlord, and those they pass by in town while doing necessary shopping, they avoid other people as much as is possible.

“A successful trip out was one in which they met no one”

While in some respects a gentle story focusing on the rhythms of day to day living, the life Bell and Sigh choose to live has an elemental feel. Alongside the changing weather, the growth and decay of nature, there is no shying away from: build up of dirt, deterioration, how animals are treated and behave. The dogs in particular have many truly disgusting habits when allowed to roam free. They sometimes kill when able to grasp the opportunity.

Bell and Sigh also share their home with: mice, spiders, the detritus that accumulates if not tidied away. They become ‘poor and shabby without noticing’. Their unassuming outlook provides the reader with food for thought in how most choose to live and why.

“They walked the way they always walked”

As season after season changes the couple grow ever more insular. Their days are marked by activity observed in the fields and landscape: the plants and farm animals, the wildlife that comes and goes, effects of storms and men. They develop rituals for cooking and cleaning (although the house is never clean). They become creatures of habit.

“In six years they had never once been brave enough to attempt cooking something entirely new and run the risk of having to eat a horrible dinner”

Time is measured in: empty bottles collected, washing sponges discarded, the gradual increase in grey on the dogs fur and their hair. Knobs fall off appliances. Clothing merges into one messy pile. They no longer notice the noises made by house and land, the accumulated smells of dog, damp and burnt cooking oil.

“They travelled a twenty-mile radius from the house, never straying a yard further, in the past or present, online or in life”

The author avoids waxing lyrical on the beauty of nature but what comes across keenly are the pleasures to be found on shedding superficial and vacuous preoccupations. When plans are made and then forgotten they are shown to be unimportant. Life is lived in the present.

An affirming and uplifting take on acceptance, on finding joy in whatever can be had, paying little heed to media driven dissatisfaction or aspiration. Such a basic, solitary life may suit few people, but all could benefit from appreciating where they are now above where they are endlessly berated for not being.

The prose style and structure tells the story to perfection, the use of language understated and effortlessly engaging. There is much to consider and unpack in the spare, evocative telling. For seven years Bell and Sigh did not climb the mountain, even though it was there. The life led in the meantime suited them anyway.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tramp Press.

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