I’ve never suffered from depression but some people around me have. Although I’ve tried my best to understand how they’re feeling, I’ve never known the depth and darkness of that place. For 320 pages, Sara Baume’s novel, A Line Made by Walking, showed me that place.
Struggling to cope with life, 25-year-old artist, Frankie, retreats to her family’s rural house, vacant since her beloved grandmother’s death three years earlier. Surrounded by open space, Frankie slowly falls apart –
…I tried to explain that I had no explanation, that I just spent rather a lot of time trying not to cry; that trying-not-to-cry had become my normal state.
Baume uses two unique devices to tell the story. Firstly, Frankie photographs the dead animals she comes across on her countryside walks, as a way of finding her way back to art (the photos are included in the book). Secondly, focusing on random words – flowers, sky, goldfish and so on – Frankie tests herself to remember relevant seminal works of art. These ‘tests’ are dotted throughout the text and have a jarring, hyperactive feel against Frankie’s otherwise flat outlook (I looked up some of the art referenced and it adds fantastic context to the story).
Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs… Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.
The photographs and ‘tests’ could seem gimmicky or pretentious but accompanied by Baume’s elegant and careful words, the result is a layered, thoughtful story.
Baume has embedded Frankie’s depression, her sadness, her despair, her exhaustion in every detail –
I ball up my lonesome sock, stick it back in my drawer of slightly bigger balls of sock. And there it lies in wait, for me to lose a leg.
It’s the thoroughness, the all-pervasiveness of Frankie’s depression that gives this story weight –
But in the end, it only lasted as long as every day lasts. Immoveable, intractable.
Through Frankie, Baume challenges the things that we expect should bring happiness and makes interesting observations about what constitutes ‘achievement’. While Frankie’s friends are discussing ‘starter salaries’ and “…jotting notes in cafes and making beautiful speeches and wearing summer scarves”, Frankie is coming to terms with the fact that her life and artistic pursuits have not gone in the direction she expected –
It’s time to accept that I am average, and to stop making this acceptance of my averageness into a bereavement.
Now I see how this rebellion against ordinary happiness is the greatest vanity of them all.
There are wisps of happier times, particularly relating to Frankie’s mother and the memories of her grandmother –
Every year during the summer holidays, she would take my sister and me on trips to peculiar places. An old gunpowder mill, a former women’s prison, a deserted beach house gutted by a storm…some coastal outcrop which got cut off at high tide. She could never resist straying from the designated path, racing against the rising sea. In her company my sister and I always ended up briar-scratched, muddied, wading, lost. We thought my grandmother was glorious.
Isn’t that beautiful? But don’t expect a resolution or redemption – this is one of those books that will leave you thinking for some time after the final page.
I received my copy of A Line Made by Walking from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“It’s too warm for red wine; now I mix gin and tonics instead. I find they make the ordinary sensation of living lighter, less ruffled.”