Seven Steeples by Sara Baume – review

Published by Tramp Press

Publication Date – 7 April 2022

Source – review copy

The mountain remained, unclimbed, for the first year that they lived there. Bell and Sigh, a couple in the infancy of their relationship, cut themselves off from friends and family. They turn their backs on a city divided by scores of streets and hundreds of sterile cherry trees, by a foul river and a declining population of house sparrows. Them in and the world out. From the top of the nearby mountain, they are told, you can see seven standing stones, seven schools, and seven steeples. All you have to do is climb. Taking place in a remote house in the south-west of Ireland, this rich and vivid novel spans seven years and speaks to the times we live in, asking how we may withdraw, how better to live in the natural world, and how the choices made or avoided lead us home.

Bell and Sigh decide to move to the coast, to a rural, solitary cottage in the shadow of a mountain. They take only possessions that will fit in their van, together with their two dogs. They vow to climb the mountain and yet as each year passes they have still to set foot on it.

Seven Steeples is an ode to the environment, of connecting with your surroundings. It is lyrical, almost long form poetry. There are images conjured up from just a few words, an idea of the changing seasons and the environment from the observations of the pair. There is repetition, reinforcing the cycle of the seasons, of the sameness but also difference of the ever changing landscape.

There is also the sense of remoteness, not just geographically but the distance Bell and Sigh put between them and other people. They purposefully drop contact with family and friends, avoid other people unless necessary. Whilst the world outside of their door is large and imposing, their world becomes smaller, limited to the distances they drive in their van, or walk in an evening with their dogs. The remoteness is also there between the reader and the story, a disconnect with the humans which draws the environment closer. There is little speech from Bell and Sigh, or other humans they come across. Instead, the narration is that, the story of how they come to be at that little cottage, how they make it their own and how they come to interact and be changed by the nature around them. Even their names become part of the surroundings, Bell and Sigh, things heard echoing around the mountainside.

Theirs is a life to envy but is with it’s less coveted aspects. They have a somewhat lackadaisical approach to cleaning, are relaxed about mice shaped lodgers, oblivious to spiders and have a weird tick collecting hobby.

Whilst not much happens, it is said in such an interesting way that the reader wants to find out just what won’t happen next.

It’s easy to imagine the fields surrounding the house, the shadow of the mountain and the coastline glinting in the distance. The reader can see the shabby, uncleaned windows, bare of curtains, can see the cracks in the stove and the tendrils of multitudes of plants. You can hear the mice running in under the floorboards and hear the tinkle of bells removed from dog toys.

It’s hard to say why I enjoyed reading Seven Steeples. It’s all of the above, partly the ability to live vicariously in the middle of nowhere and the language used.

A lyrical tribute to nature.

You can buy a copy of the book here.

(This is an affiliate link so I may earn a small amount should you purchase through it. You can also buy Seven Steeples from your local independent bookshop.)

Seven Steeples is longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Through themes of coming of age, adversity and love, this year’s longlist comprises eight novels, two poetry collections and two short story collections:

–               Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Atlantic Books) – novel (Australia)

–               Seven Steeples by Sara Baume (Tramp Press) – novel (Ireland)

–               God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu (Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – short story collection (Nigeria)

–               Maps Of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)

–               Phantom Gang by Ciarán O’Rourke (The Irish Pages Press) – poetry collection (Ireland)

–               Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld) – novel (Kenya)

–               Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu (Canongate Books) – novel (UK)

–               I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (Rough Trade Books) – novel (UK)

–               Send Nudes by Saba Sams (Bloomsbury Publishing) – short story collection (UK)

–               Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Chatto & Windus) – poetry collection (Somalia-UK)

–               Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens (Picador, Pan Macmillan) – novel (UK)

–               No Land to Light On by Yara Zgheib (Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin) – novel (Lebanon)

The Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist will be announced on Thursday 23 March followed by the Winner’s Ceremony held in Swansea on Thursday 11 May, prior to International Dylan Thomas Day on Sunday 14 May.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. JacquiWine says:

    A very thoughtful review, Janet. There’s a lot to like about this novel, and it’s really beautifully written, but the sense of disconnection / distance you’ve also highlighted prevented me from connecting with it more fully.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      I can see that. I think had it been any longer, or more about Bell and Sigh than about their surroundings I wouldn’t have connected with it as well. Or perhaps it’s those bits I didn’t connect with as much.


  2. I really need to get to this one, it’s been languishing on my shelf for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Let me know what you make of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds lovely, Janet, and I do agree with what you say about living a life vicariously via a book – I often get that feeling from my reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It’s one that is very much about the environment it’s set in. Almost but not quite a nature book. If that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. heavenali says:

    I love the sound of this one, especially with its focus on landscape and nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      That’s the part that I enjoyed the most. And the idea of escaping from the city. I may not have done it in the same way as Bell and Sigh though 🙂


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