In Sara Baume’s second novel, “A Line Made by Walking,” we meet Frankie, a 20-something artist whose life seems heaving in spasms. An acute introvert, Frankie moves from the city into her deceased grandmother’s moldy bungalow in rural Ireland, where she begins to shore up her ruins in a house that’s “a depository for things whose fate is yet to be determined.”

There, she inventories her life vis-à-vis her grandmother’s possessions and comes to the conclusion that she’s stuck (in a physical and mental space), not unlike the abandoned items she finds in that house. “I am not sick, just lost,” she thinks.

We’ve all found ourselves in this betwixt and between landscape where, like Frankie, our footing is unsure and we’d sometimes rather be “like a child in a ghost costume at Halloween” and “see the world without it seeing [us] back.”

Yet, Frankie finds freedom in this gap and in the nonlinear design of nature because she can examine herself without the external expectations of society and prudence.

Frankie is an intelligent and observant narrator. Her perceptions — though sometimes skewed — right themselves just as they are about to topple. To assist herself through these moments, Frankie quizzes herself on her knowledge of art (a skill she feels slipping) when real life corresponds to the art she loves. “Works about Lostness, I test myself: Stanley Brouwn.”

These interstitial interpretations not only give us deep insight to Frankie, but act as a touchstone to help her remember the artist she is and was, and as a bellwether of her own sanity. This tic also gives original perspectives on art; you’ll find yourself googling “Stanley Brouwn” as soon as you put the book down — if that’s possible.

Frankie’s internal narrative also consists of “loops,” topics repeated and reshaped as the book progresses: radio programs, art tests, nature, death, doctors, photography, childhood. These loops are anathema to a straight line, the most linear of structures that, in essence, reflect sanity. The OCD-like loops are hard to stop and also the device that gives Frankie structure.

Baume wrings out sentences that change the way you look at everyday things. On dead frogs: “Their skin grated off, legs vastly distended, organs buttered across the tarmac.” On Frankie’s grandmother’s house: “The webs in the window frames so thick you could have called them hammocks and cradled kittens there. The stench of abandonment.” On a rainstorm: “The sky unclenches, a blanket lifted from a birdcage.”

Baume leaves nothing unturned in this dark and sometimes funny excavation of the human heart, life’s fragility and the quest for sanity in a sometimes insane world.

 

Kerri Arsenault serves on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle and writes a column for Lit Hub. She is working on a book about a paper-mill town in Maine.

A Line Made by Walking
By: Sara Baume.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 308 pages, $25.