Book Review: A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume

Hummingbird may 2015

When I first started reading A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume, I smiled grimly. Like the novel’s protagonist, Frankie, and indeed like the author herself, I too take pictures of dead little creatures. We are never as unique or exceptional as we think we are, a fact that Frankie–an aspiring and, in her mind, failed artist–is keenly, excruciatingly grappling with in this compelling and complex second novel by Baume.

Or should I say, Sara. It feels unnatural and somewhat disingenuous to call her Baume, considering I developed a friendship of sorts with Sara after she won a short story competition that I had also entered. Though we have never met in person, she sent me some kind words about my story (and, a few years later, selected it to read in a podcast, which was a lovely surprise a couple of years ago), and since then we have struck up an intermittent correspondence, exchanging some long emails, physical letters, postcards and little gifts over the years (most marvelously a tiny clay dog made by Sara and fashioned after ‘One Eye,’ the half-blind dog in her wonderful debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither).  

In spite of our friendship, and the fact that Sara is an incredible writer, it’s taken me almost two years to finally finish A Line Made By Walking. I’ve attempted it several times, but it was never, seemingly, the right time. While there is some comfort in characters whose lives, experiences, fears and anxieties are similar to our own, I found I couldn’t deal with Frankie when I was engulfed in my own periods of depression, or those moments when, in spite of my many sources of ordinary happinesses and privilege, I feel like my life is so very far from what I want it to be, professionally (for want of a better word).

If young Frankie’s life is a failure, then what is mine?

As I head into the final two years of my thirties, it is somewhat difficult to sympathize with a 26-year old, whose post-college adult life has barely begun, grieving the loss of a life that they’ve always expected for themselves, but didn’t quite get. If young Frankie’s life is a failure then what is mine? I am much older than she is, with less time for (though perhaps more openness to) recovering what I’ve lost or let slip away, and salvaging, creatively, what’s left of the life ahead of me.

Ability and desire aside, there were times when I initially started reading this book when I wondered if it was time for me, as well as Frankie, to abandon my artistic ambitions, accept the loss of the writer’s life that I thought would be mine, to not only accept that I am average but to “stop making this acceptance of my averageness into a bereavement,” and start churning the intellect I have left into simply living.

Frankie’s existential crisis, mirroring so much my own, was by turns either too painful or too irritating to be around. This is not a criticism of the novel nor of the author’s rendering of her protagonist; rather, the opposite. The character is perfectly and complexly drawn. She’s a real person who, as the poet says, contains multitudes and is a mass of contradictions. I see so much of myself in Frankie, both her best parts and her worst, from her intelligence, humor, sensitivity, attentiveness to the natural world and the ‘small’ things that most people don’t seem to notice, to her awkwardness, selfishness, ingratitude, self-righteousness and bitterness.

Granted, I think (hope) that I have identified and moved beyond so many of these less than desirable or charitable character traits. When I say I recognize myself in Frankie, I mean that I recognize my 26-year old self in Frankie’s 26-year old self. I was initially infuriated and appalled by her self-absorption, lack of appreciation or awareness of her white middle-class privilege, tossing the book back on my bedside table and abandoning it again and again. Then I realized that my disgust was a reaction to the recognition that I, too, was much like Frankie when I was that age, and still am in my worst unchecked moments.

If I was able to forgive myself for my flaws, then surely I could extend the same compassion and empathy for a fictionalized mirror of myself, too?

If I was able to forgive myself for my flaws, then surely I could extend the same compassion and empathy for a fictionalized mirror of myself, too? After two years of false starts and failed attempts, I was at last able to return to and finish the novel uninterrupted and (mostly) uncritically of Frankie, and I’m very glad I did.

As I’ve said, there are several reasons why it was never quite a good time to read or finish reading A Line Made By Walking. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So, too, the reader and the novel.

Too, the same book can mean different things to the same reader at different times. If I had read it immediately and completely upon its release two years ago, I doubt I would have ever picked it up again. (Not because it’s undeserving of a re-read, only because I’m a slow reader and it’s amazing I finish any novel lately, let alone find the time to read it twice; though, in fact, I did return to many of its pages again and again.)

As E.L. Doctorow said, “any book that you pick up as a reader is a printed circuit for your own life to flow through,” and it just so happened that I came back to the book at a time when I, like Frankie, had a heightened awareness of animals and their place and presence in my life. Had I read it two years or even a year before, I doubt I would have paid a slight bit of notice to what is now, to me, the most striking and moving aspect of the work.

After this perhaps overly long ‘preamble,’ what follows below is not so much a book review but a perhaps overly long account of what I discovered in the novel when I finally stopped seeing myself in Frankie and, instead, started looking at, and paying attention to, what Frankie was seeing in the world around her.


Pay Attention To The Nothings And Appreciate Them

Most readings have, understandably, focused on the various forms of human suffering explored in the novel. Following a nervous breakdown, 26-year old Frankie packs her things and leaves Dublin, moving initially into her childhood home with her parents, and then into her deceased grandmother’s cottage where she grapples with that bereavement as well as the loss of her own artistic life and sense of self.

As other reviewers have discussed in detail, this is also a novel about Art: what it is for, why it is made, how to interpret it, its value and importance. Structurally, the novel is punctuated by Frankie “testing” herself on works of art (more than 75 all told, usually from conceptual artists) that reflect upon, and deepen our understanding of, her emotional and psychological state of mind.

“Works about Flight, I test myself,” “Works about Zoos, I test myself,” “Works about Lower, Slower Views, I test myself,” she says, considering works by Yves KleinPeter Friedl, and Richard Long, whose 1967 documented action, ‘A Line Made By Walking,’ inspired the title for the novel. “He specializes in barely-there-art,” muses Frankie about Long. “Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do as little damage.”

Art and grief and mental illness. These are the most salient aspects of the novel, in that they are the most noticeable or most notable to most readers. However, as far as I could find, nobody has engaged with what is, for me, the most striking and meaningful aspect of the novel. For all its layers of grief, death and existential anguish, almost every page of A Line Made By Walking is absolutely teeming with life: specifically, animal life.

For all its layers of grief, death and existential anguish, almost every page of A Line Made By Walking is absolutely teeming with life: specifically, animal life.

Contrasting Baume’s second novel with her debut, which tells the tale of a lonely man’s relationship with his one-eyed dog, a review in The Guardian says: “Now she’s written about a loner again, this time giving her heroine a richer, more peopled interior life.”

It’s true: compared to her first novel, there are more humans in this second book–her parents, her doctor, her friends up in Dublin–but even when she’s feeling lost and lonely, pottering around her grandmother’s home in isolation from other human beings, Frankie is never quite alone. “All on my own,” she says. “Except for the creatures.”

“All on my own. Except for the creatures.”

Most overtly, each of the novel’s ten chapters is named for a different animal that Frankie encounters: Robin, Rabbit, Rat, Mouse, Rook, Fox, Frog, Hare, Hedgehog, Badger. These animals are a focal point, revealing something about the character either to herself or, more often, to the reader.

Starting with a dead robin (“It would speak to me in its language and I would speak back in mine”), she begins to make a photographic record of other dead animals (“They are being killed with me; they are being killed for me”) in an attempt to revive the decaying artist within her, but whose images nonetheless reflect her own sense of disintegration–a disintegration she largely attributes to a scene in a Wernor Herzog documentary in which a penguin breaks away from the group and walks away, towards certain death, in the opposite direction.

“Was it from the deranged penguin that the huge and crushing sadness came? His pointed tail dragging the snow. His useless wings thrashing. Falling on his front. Pushing himself on again. Waddling, stumbling, waddling.”

This image of the robin is the actual picture Sara took for a similar artistic project some years prior to writing the novel; the other pictures are just a few of my own, taken over the years.

Yet these animals are just a handful of those that appear in the novel. Frankie may be devoid of human company, but she is surrounded by living, breathing beings who, along with herself, are struggling with the precarity of life and ever-present death.

Animals, birds, and other little creatures appear on almost every page, nestled into the folds of the novel, like the spindly spiders nestled into the folds of her curtains, making scuffling sounds in the dead of night.

From tiny cows in distant fields to normal-sized cows up close, memories of pets of yore (gerbils, goldfish, cats semi-wild and always fluffy), to city pigeons, and swans huddled next to a wide pond, their necks folded down like deckchairs. From childhood nightmares of gnawing red-eyed rodents, to a blur of racecourses and llama farms on a bus journey home. From a garden filled with quarreling butterflies to a merlin soaring overhead chasing a sparrow, A Line Made By Walking is laden with the lives of all creatures great and small.

A Line Made By Walking is laden with the lives of all creatures great and small.

As well as actual living animals, a notable number of objects that furnish her home and surroundings are also animals: the ceramic dolphin in her grandmother’s house, her mother’s eco-friendly ladybird-printed cotton tote, or a pretty porcelain plate hand painted with a scene of geese and a maiden carrying a wicker basket (a maiden, Frankie’s sister suspects is probably force-feeding them as they’re a foie gras flock).

Objects that don’t depict animals have nonetheless been touched by animals–the greasy, ineradicable black stain where her grandmother’s dog used to scratch his back, the reek of him that still permeates the cottage though he is gone now too, having followed the old woman, grief-stricken, to the grave.

Even those objects and physical materials that don’t directly depict an animal are given animal qualities or compared to an animal, like the carpet in her grungy bedsit that Frankie digs her fingers into it as if it was “a short-coated pet.” In her grandmother’s garden, along with a ceramic hippo and two bird tables is “a bench in the shape of a weird animal, buckled planks held in place by wrought-iron legs which taper into wrought-iron paws–too large for a cat and too small for a lion–and so my grandmother’s bench must be a lynx.”

“The white strata are bunching into clouds. The bunches are competing with each other to imitate animals. A sheep, a platypus, a sheep, a tortoise. A sheep, a sheep, a sheep. The leaves are breaking out, obscuring the white strata, the sky animals, the irregular spaces of cerulean between everything.”

Later in the novel, the same sky–after a storm has passed and the clouds have cleared–is “a blanket lifted from a birdcage,” and we, the metaphor implies, are as caged as anyone on this earth.


What are we to make of this?

On the one hand, there are simply too many animal-related mentions, appearances and asides for this to mean nothing, but what it does mean, or might mean, is open to interpretation. I have no idea if the proliferation of animal life was intentional and intended to communicate something specific, or an element that emerged unconsciously outside the author’s awareness in the moment.

What I do know is that if I’d read it a couple of years ago, I probably would not have noticed this now very obvious aspect of the novel. The fact that the reviews I’ve read don’t mention what can only be described as a saturation of direct references or indirect allusions to animals is both completely astounding and perfectly unsurprising.

Mirroring our general disregard for animals and the supremacy and prioritization of human life in the ‘real world,’ the typical reader (including my former self) will prioritize the human aspects of the novel–mental illness, knowing what you want to be when you grow up, the complexity of familial relationships–and gloss over or completely fail to see the saturation of animal references on almost every page of the book.

Teaching her how to meditate, her Buddhist aunt Beth tells Frankie it’s important to “pay attention to the nothings and appreciate them.” In the days following their meeting, Frankie starts to notice things she never has before–the sensation of her clothes against her skin, the tiny trembles of her body, a lifetime of accumulated litter and plastic at the bottom of a hill. Frankie may think she has just begun noticing the small things, but she has been doing this all along, paying attention to and appreciating the nothings of this world.

Animals are our under-appreciated, disregarded nothings.

For animals are our under-appreciated, disregarded nothings.

In a brief aside about dust mites, invisible to the human eye, Frankie says, “They are everywhere, yet they are nothing,” but the same could be said about almost any animal or living creature in this world. And because humanity in general thinks nothing much of slugs and bugs and frogs and birds, we might not even be aware, as we are reading, that our attention is being drawn to the nothings, or that we are being invited to–or at the very least being presented with an opportunity to–pay attention and appreciate them in our own lives and houses and gardens and skies and parks and beaches, too.

Ursula K Le Guin said:

“Skill in living, awareness of belonging to the world, delight in being part of the world, always tends to involve knowing our kinship as animals with animals. Darwin first gave that knowledge a scientific basis. And now, both poets and scientists are extending the rational aspect of our sense of relationship to creatures without nervous systems and to non-living beings — our fellowship as creatures with other creatures, things with other things.

Though most reviews remark upon Frankie’s artistic photograph-series of dead animals, I found the descriptions and observations about living creatures far more interesting than the dead ones (animals are so much better–and much better off–when they’re alive, I think). Often, her photographing of dead animals feels cursory or rushed (spot a dead hedgehog on the side of a ditch, hop off her bicycle, snap, click, back on the bike) in contrast to her everyday noticings and interactions with the living.

Frankie might seem to be obsessed with death, and it is death which is the focus of her art, but in ‘real life,’ the ordinary, day-to-day life that she distinguishes from Art, her attention unwittingly falls upon life, from blades of grass to a lone goose honking overhead. A Line Made By Walking is full of fascination, reverence and wonder for animal life and the natural world. However, this isn’t to say that the novel is free of the assumptions and ideologies that are actively harming animals in the real world.


Works About Killing Animals, I Test Myself

Those of you who have read this far might be confused by or disagree with my statement that animals are our under-appreciated, disregarded nothings, and in some ways you’re right.

Most everyone has a degree of reverence for nature–the sparrows and butterflies of the air, the deer and owls of the woodlands. And, like me, most readers will likely shed a tear or two for Joe, Frankie’s grandmother’s arthritic golden retriever who, after her death, lies on the floor in the exact spot he’d last seen her and slowly withers away with grief.

But what about the other animals? What reverence, what respect, what wonder for the birds and animals on our plates? While the proliferation of animals in the novel passes without remark in most reviews, even more hidden and unnoticed is the accepted ideology that there are different rules for different animals that must not be muddled.

Thinking about how her mother buys daffodils from the supermarket while refusing to pick the daffodils that overflow in their garden, Frankie says:

“According to ritual, there are outdoor flowers and indoor flowers in the same way as there are wild animals and pet animals, free fish and farmed fish, garden vegetables and shop vegetables; they must not be muddled. I stare out at the daffodil farm. I  think how strange it is to imagine the indoor flowers un-bunched and outside, almost as strange as it is to picture all the mammoths daintily plucking them.”

In line with our carnist belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals, the novel reinforces the idea that some animals are to be loved and cared for, while others of equal intelligence, sentience and feeling are to be slaughtered and suffer for our tastebuds.

Similarly, of all the pets she and her sister were allowed to have as children, their mother never allowed them to keep a bird, reasoning that a caged gerbil can still run and jump and dig, but a caged bird can’t still fly. In this highly invisible and violent belief system, some animals deserve their freedom, while it’s perfectly natural, perfectly normal, to encage and enslave others. Some animals are worthy of our attention and others are not.

“Every time I think I see a better sort of bird to sight–a kestrel, a buzzard, a glossy ibis–it turns out to be just another jackdaw, or magpie, or rook. So why wasn’t I taught, in Junior Infants, that crows have crow babies in springtime too, just like the small and beautiful and stupid birds.”

For a novel that is in some ways an homage to animals, A Line Made By Walking illustrates the behavioral hypocrisies and inconsistencies of those of us who think of ourselves as animal lovers. According to our completely arbitrary rules and rituals, animals must not be muddled.

In “Works about Killing Animals,” Frankie describes a performance by Hermann Nitsch, which involves animal sacrifice, the drinking of blood and the eating of entrails. Organized in the style of pagan ritual, the point of the performance (according to Frankie) is how mankind has forgotten its inborn proclivity to violence and slaughter. Instead, she says, drolly, critically, “we are all too busy washing our hair, our car. Plucking our guitar strings, our eyebrows.”

On the one hand, Frankie is correctly highlighting mankind’s mindless disconnect. But on the other hand, she equally mindlessly joins her family in an Easter dinner celebration that is centered around violence and slaughter.

“Blown, painted, fractured eggs. A sponge cake with primroses glued into the icing. Chickens made out of pipe-cleaners and a real one in the oven. Headless, footless, oozing ambrosial juices as it roasts.”

Frankie calls out the dumb masses for plucking on their guitar strings and plucking their eyebrows, but apparently sees no issue in savoring the flesh of actual victims of violence, nor does she make mention of who plucked the feathers from the chicken’s slaughtered body that’s roasting in the oven for Easter dinner or any old weeknight.

Like those of us who have forgotten mankind’s proclivity for violence and slaughter, Frankie (like all of us) is equally removed from the reality that the leg and breast on her dinner plate belonged to a chicken that was as alive and real and feeling as Joe, or the wise robin she thinks of as her guardian angel. That brutal, barbaric reality belongs to someone else: to those invisibilized humans who pluck the chicken’s feathers and soften the pig’s skin in scalding water before gassing them in an oven and slitting their throat; to those people who perform our violence for us, so that we don’t have to see, and that enable us to forget; to those people who are often animalized in order to dehumanize and strip them of value, too.

The “mammoths” she refers to in the passage above are the “heavyset, hazelnut-skinned” Brazilian farmworkers who arrived during Ireland’s economic boom times to work in the meat factories. “But now there are too many Brazilians and not enough beef, or at least, not enough demand for it,” so it is the daffodil farmer to whom these “mammoth,” silent men must “prostitute” themselves, according to Frankie.

Thinking of the daffodils, she tests herself on “Works about Flowers,” selecting Anya Gallaccio’s preserve ‘beauty,’ which displays two thousand red blooms pressed between glass. The artist chose the gerber-daisy hybrid because they are bio-technologically mass-produced to meet the demands of the global market. “So many people covet their cut stems,” says Frankie, “the Earth can’t keep up.”

The same can be said of the chickens and pigs and cows and sheep, whose flesh we eat and milk we drink. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, deforestation, water scarcity and pollution, loss of biodiversity and habitat for wild animals, birds, pollinators and other lifeforms essential not only to our survival, but whose lives and existence have meaning regardless of their necessity or not to humankind. And yet. So many people covet their cut throats, the Earth can’t keep up.

So many people covet their cut throats, the Earth can’t keep up.

Later in the book Frankie tests herself on “Works about Goldfish,” describing Maro Evaristti’s installation, Helenain which ten food blenders, each containing a measure of water and a single goldfish, presented audience members with an “opportunity to press the button and mince the goldfish, or not.”

Frankie notes that the director of the gallery was sued on the grounds of animal cruelty and, in a retrospective more than a decade later, Evarissti used already-dead goldfish preserved in clear jelly: “Goldfish killed in a private place, by some other means,” notes Frankie.

A court ruled that liquidizing goldfish is not a crime, in the same way that male chicks, having no commercial value, are routinely–and legally–ground up in an industrial blender called a macerator. Day-old baby chicks, killed in an unseen, private place that most of us don’t know about, at least I didn’t until a couple of year’s ago.

There were so many things I didn’t know or care to question until only very recently. Like I said way back at the beginning, I finally finished this novel during a time when I was thinking about animals and their place and presence in my life or–to be more accurate–their place and presence on my plate and in my body. It turns out that most everything I was ever told or ever willingly, happily believed about the food on my plate was simply not true.

“Did it do me any good, early in life, to believe so many things which were not true? Or did it damage me? Pouring a foundation of disappointment, of uncertainty.” Here, Frankie is talking about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the idea that she would or could be an artist, but when I read this line I was thinking about all the other things I’ve discovered are not true: from the myth of ‘humane’ meat to the myth of slaughter-free dairy.

And the answer is, yes: it damaged me. But more than that, it damaged and hurt the animals who pay the price of the little white lies we’ve all been taught to tell ourselves.

Legal or not, the fact remains that every day we pay someone else to do what we could never do ourselves. Most of us could no more press the button on a blender with a goldfish inside it than we could toss a baby chick into a grinder or slit the throat of a cow. And yet we are complicit in violence, misery and cruelty every time we pay for a ‘product’ that once was the body of a living, breathing animal. Is it really all that different from pushing the button or raising the knife ourselves?

Frankie is viscerally aware of the thin line that separates us from those who hold the knife or the captive bolt. Driving down a country road she unthinkingly accelerates when she comes upon a “dozy pigeon.” She cautiously hopes that the bird’s death was no more than a tragic miscalculation, but she isn’t so sure:

“I’d like to believe, as everyone does, that I am innately good; innately wired to do good. But maybe I innately wanted to see the pigeon burst against my windscreen, a miniature piñata.”

Afterwards, she refuses to clean her car and leaves the blood and shit where it is as a reminder of her instinctive brutality, as a caution.

Shortly afterwards she creates some ground rules for her art project. She’s not allowed to photograph creatures she has killed herself, and she cannot photograph pets, only wild animals, so that the project “can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

I think of this sentence often, at this particular, precarious moment in time when so many creatures–including ourselves–are threatened with extinction or great harm. How we can only see the magnificence and glory of life once it has been lost.

The robin that Frankie photographs at the beginning of the novel isn’t the first that has happened across her path–it’s simply the first she has thought to take a picture of. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, and whether we note their passing or not makes their lives and their deaths no less real to them.

“The tree which falls without any human hearing still falls, as the creatures who die without being found by a human still die.”

The implication here, I think, is that if one of these lives is important and worth recording or marking in some way, then all of them are, though the novel itself doesn’t quite live up to this sentiment.

All animals’ lives have inherent value. All of them suffer. All of them feel pain and fear. And all of them have a will to live.

Frankie’s mother is wrong when she says that different animals shouldn’t be muddled. It’s our manmade rules about whose life has value and whose doesn’t that is muddled, and I think that Frankie knows this or is on her way to knowing this, as I think that we all know this or are on our way to knowing this.

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About the Book

  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First American Edition, 2017.
  • First published 2017 by Tramp Press.
  • Hardback 320pp. Paperback 279pp.
  • Shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, and was an International DUBLIN Literary Award nominee.
  • I hate the ‘star’ system, but for what it’s worth I rated this book 4 Stars on Goodreads

Additional Reading

 

Know Thy Shelf | 01

One of my favorite blogs is The [Blank] Garden, a reading journal slash book review website. Almost every review (or what its creator, Juliana Brina, wonderfully describes as “efforts of affection”) is written as a letter to the author of the novel or story in question, which I adore and, as a longtime letter-writer, I wish I’d thought of myself.

My reading life is a conversation made in silence with writers I most probably will never meet. I see the books I read (and the posts I write about them) as a letter exchange.  You are invited to open these letters I send to the void. Cor ad cor loquitur.

I highly recommend checking her out, and an excellent place to begin would be her wonderful post on the subject of whether or not the indie book blog is dead: And it seemed right, I mean rite, to me. (Spoiler alert: it is not.)

Recently, Juliana launched a series of posts–Know Thy Shelf–documenting her eclectic and enviable bookshelves. She also invited others to join her in posting a picture of their bookshelf, or part of their bookshelf, and answering (and, in one case, asking) the following questions:

(1) Book from this shelf you would save in an emergency.

(2) Book that has been in this shelf for the longest time.

(3) Newest edition to this shelf.

(4) Book from this shelf you are most excited to read or re-read.

(5) Any poetry books?

(6) Any non-fiction books?

(7) Most read author in this shelf?

(8) What does this shelf tell you about me as a reader?


We were two years in our new home before we finally got around to building some bookshelves and getting at least some of our collection out of cardboard boxes. A domino like line of books still snakes around the perimeter of our bedroom floor, and there are days when it seems as though the beige carpet is growing up around them like sun bleached blades of grass.

I love the combination of salvaged wood and industrial piping that Ian used to build these shelves into a small alcove between the kitchen and the living room. We’re still two shelves shy of making this the full-length bookshelf of my imagination (we’re good at starting projects in this house, but not so great at the finishing touches), and we’ll need at least two more book cases of the same size to house all the books that we own between us.

I love bookshelves as much for their aesthetic quality as I do for the actual books themselves, and in this rickety and drafty house of ours they have the added benefit of providing a smidgen more insulation in the winter time. I’m a compulsive book buyer so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get around to reading every book I bring into this house, but simply being surrounded by them is pleasure enough for me most days. In the dreariest days of Oregon’s winter, they are the most colorful and promising things to be seen for miles around. And, if nothing else, they make wonderful look-out posts for the cats!


For my first ‘Know Thy Shelf’ post, here’s a close-up of one of the shelves.

(For those of you who can’t bear the secrecy, the books that are hidden by the candlestick are Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, which I have not yet read, and Final del Juego by Julio Cortázar, which I would like to read but my Spanish is nowhere near as good as my husband’s so I will need to get my hands on an English translation.)

Know Thy Shelf 01

And here are my answers to the questions posed by The [Blank] Garden:

(1) Book from this shelf you would save in an emergency:

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

(2) Book that has been in this shelf for the longest time:

  • In Flander’s Field by Leon Wolff.

(3) Newest edition to this shelf:

(4) Book from this shelf you are most excited to read or re-read:

  • To read: Notable American Women by Ben Marcus. To re-read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

(5) Any poetry books?

  • Apart from Leaves of Grass which I already mentioned, American Primitive by Mary Oliver, and the selection of Aristotle’s most important works contains his book on The Art of Poetry among other delights.

(6) Any non-fiction books?

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

(7) Most read author in this shelf?

  • Toni Morrison.

And, lastly, a question for you, should you have the inclination to answer:

(8) What does this shelf tell you about me as a reader?


I love snooping around other people’s bookshelves; it’s one of the first things I do when I walk into someone’s home. I’m not sure what this slice of my bookshelf tells you about me as a reader, but taking a fresh look at something I see every day is telling me that I need to shut down my laptop for the afternoon and open up a book instead.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”

Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.

Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.

(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word “smitten” is the past participle of “smite,” which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say, She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)

I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.

First, there is a flood.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Then, there is a death.

Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.

“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just be me, and nothing will happen at all.”

Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.

I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences, steady accumulation of strange details and observations, non-sequiter dialogue and diversions, and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:

“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010. 

What is certain is she has been largely overlooked, and I feel lucky to have happened across her.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though what book wasn’t, one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out-of-print novel.

“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”

“Marvelous!” I thought. And it really was.

For your consideration:

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead