On the strength of both its author and her publisher I'm about to recommend, unreservedly, a book I haven't read yet. This may strike you as an abdication of the critic's role, and you'd be right, but as we're all living through paradigm shifts on a daily basis I'm intensely relaxed about that.
I first became aware of Sara Baume's writing in 2014 when she won the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award for 'Solesearcher1', an account of what I suppose you'd call extreme angling. It was immediately impressive and (much as I dislike the mimsy phrase) 'a new voice', bright and clear. The following year I reviewed her very impressive debut novel spill simmer falter wither for the TLS. This tale of a solitary misfit and his one-eyed dog living together in a car and aimlessly navigating the Irish countryside was equally impressive. It struck me as a kind of unplugged fiction - fresh, strange, confident - a 2015 highlight. If I had any minor reservation it was with the voice of the man, which seemed to me at times to be not fully realised. But that opens a can of worms when it comes to an author's inhabiting another gender. I think only Iris Murdoch has ever fully pulled this off, in her first novel Under the Net, and this prompted my comparison between Baume and the late Dame.
Baume's second novel, A Line Made by Walking (2017), featured a troubled young woman called Frankie living alone in her late grandmother's cottage in a remote part of Ireland who, as a form of emotional and intellectual consolation, rehearses to herself examples of conceptual art from the recent past. (This aspect of the novel was an education - it sparked an interest in the subject, and the appendix detailing the cited works sent me scuttling for more work by artists entirely new to me). It was a fearless exploration of depression and isolation and, at this point in our history, A Line Made by Walking comes high on any list of fictions about isolation and solitude, and is one of the best novels about art and artists I've ever read.
Baume is herself an artist and handiwork (lower case sic), her third book and first work of non-fiction, is launched in Dublin today and officially published by Tramp Press tomorrow. It's about her own artistic practices as a writer and artist, and I look forward keenly to reading it. In October 2018 I enjoyed a small exhibition of her work called Devotions, Keepsakes and Talismans at the Morley Gallery in South London, and was impressed - her small-scale pieces have a quiet presence in the world but come with great conceptual heft. I like conceptual art which is clever, and generally recoil from the brash, garish, shallow and noisy, the 'one-look' stuff that (sigh) 'challenges preconceptions'. The worst conceptual art tends to bristle with challenging ideas but seldom with good ideas. Baume, as a cerebral artist and writer, has good ideas in lavish quantities and makes work that speaks to an audience with a taste for the thoughtful, the reflective, the inward-looking and the well-executed.
From the publisher's website:
handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.
I look forward to reading this.
Order handiwork from the publishers here