January Book Group

A Review of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Book cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … how the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

Last month’s Book Group choice was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. Having only a scant knowledge of Homer, Ancient Greece and Greek mythology, I was grateful for the potted version of the story cited in the front matter and quoted from The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Achilles and Agamemnon are at loggerheads: ‘It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’ Briseis is that girl and in The Silence of the Girls, Barker gives her a voice.

The story opens with a Greek invasion. Women and girls have been incarcerated for their own protection. Briseis describes the heat and fetid atmosphere of the rooms, her own attempts to help the other women, and then she describes what she sees from the roof of the citadel as the invasion unfolds.

I saw the flash of the upraised spear, I saw my brother lying on the ground wriggling like a stuck pig. And at that moment Achilles, as if he had all the time in the world, turned his head and glanced up at the tower […] Then, with a kind of fastidious precision – I wish I could forget it, but I can’t – he put his foot on my brother’s neck and pulled the spear out. Blood spurted from the wound, my brother struggled for a full minute to go on breathing, and then lay still.

After such a dramatic opening, I anticipated being drawn into the story, but although the writing is engaging and often vivid, I found it difficult to connect with Briseis. For me, her voice was too restrained. For example, when Achilles cannot be comforted after the death of his best friend, Patroclus, she considers her position in a cool, measured way:

Returning to the women’s huts, as early as this, would let everybody know I’d fallen from favour […] Nobody would be nasty, but everyone would take note […] I told myself it wasn’t too bad. He hadn’t hit me, hadn’t lashed out in frustration – in fact, he hadn’t done any of the things he might well have done.

Briseis cares nothing for Achilles but fears that falling from his favour will propel her into the lowest form of slavery. She frequently references the fate of female slaves but there’s a detachment about her that keeps the reader at arms’ length. The opening lines of the book suggest that Briseis is spirited and disdainful, but sadly, we don’t see those qualities in her as the story progresses.

I experienced other frustrations with this book. I struggled to picture the camp and other settings because they are never fully described. Perhaps the author assumed that her readers would know already, or maybe she was deliberately using a tight frame to underline how restricted women’s lives and viewpoints were. Certainly, Briseis knows little of what goes on in Achilles’ head. This might explain why there is an unexpected narrative switch which has Achilles taking up the story.

Whether Achilles should have been given a voice in what Emily Wilson has called “a feminist Iliad” (The Guardian, 22nd August, 2018) is a question beyond the scope of this review, but for this reader, after Briseis’ somewhat unemotional narrative, I found Achilles’ thoughts refreshingly fiery, especially those concerning his friend’s death. Barker convincingly evokes a depth of feeling which borders on the sexual…

… all the time thinking about Patroclus. Not thinking, craving. The shape of his head, that little dent just below the bridge of his nose, the lopsided grin, broad shoulders, narrow waist, the biscuit-brown smell of his skin. The way they were together.

To conclude, in spite of my frustrations I did enjoy reading this book. It was educationally satisfying and might prompt me to read The Iliad in future. In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking that with a title like The Silence of the Girls, the author should have given Briseis a much louder, more stroppy voice.

Next Month: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

Writing or Drowning?

I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even when writing felt like drowning.

Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your palms get sweaty. You panic.

When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make me feel like I was making progress in other areas.

Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.

When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!

A few days later I remembered something I had read a few years ago―Jess Walter talking about his novel, Beautiful Ruins.

He said that Beautiful Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”[1]

It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.

As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.

[1] Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon Review, July 2012)


An Indian Adventure

Sandra Ireland

There are times when you just have to pinch yourself. Hurtling through the Kolkata traffic in the back of a crazy yellow taxi, in the company of top literary agent Jenny Brown, acclaimed crime writer Lin Anderson, and Esha Chatterjee, my Indian publisher, has to be one of those times!

We were on our way to the  Kolkata Book Fair (the world’s largest) for the launch of the Indian edition of Bone Deep at the British Council Pavilion and a whirlwind of panel discussions. Such a far cry from Carnoustie, I think I can be forgiven for thinking I’d stepped into someone else’s reality!


It all began with an invitation to the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, in Kerala. Never having visited India before, this was an incredible opportunity, and I couldn’t have wished for better travelling companions. Jenny and Lin have both visited India several times…

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November Book Group

Dirt Road by James Kelman

Dirt Road by James Kelman (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2016)

From the outset I am declaring my immense admiration for Kelman’s novel Dirt Road. I was so excited about it that my book group insisted that we make it our November book group read.

Dirt Road is a poignant and evocative coming of age story set in Scotland and the American deep south. Sixteen-year-old Murdo has recently lost his mother to cancer. His older sister, Eilidh had also died from the disease a few years before. Numb with grief, Murdo’s dad is trying to cope but struggles to articulate his feelings, so that father and son exist in a no-man’s-land of half-finished sentences and mutual misunderstanding.

Invited to visit relatives in America, Murdo and his dad embark on a journey which ultimately forces them to confront their shared grief and redraw the boundaries of their own changing relationship.

Whilst Murdo’s story is told primarily in third person restricted, Kelman blends second person and first-person strands through the narrative creating a convincing teenage voice for Murdo:

Even before a car he wanted a boat. With a boat ye could sail anywhere. Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails. Guys he knew had boats; their dads anyway, or uncles. It would have been great. His father didn’t bother. When ye take one back and forwards to yer work every morning, ye don’t want to be doing it in your spare time. As if travelling on a ferry was the same as sailing a boat. It was the kind of daft thing Dad said, because he couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff.

For me, this short paragraph showcases everything that is admirable about Kelman’s writing. Using “ye” anchors Murdo’s interior voice to his native Scotland, whilst the Americanism (“Guys”) underlines his youthfulness. The way Kelman shows the progression of Murdo’s thoughts by repeating “or” (“Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails” and “their dads anyway, or uncles”) pulls the reader into Murdo’s head as his thoughts unfold, creating a freshness and immediacy to the writing. The way Murdo dismisses his dad’s views as “daft” coupled with his damning statement, “because he (Dad) couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff” betrays Murdo’s frustration with his father, his desperation to talk about the loss of his mother and sister.

The Book Group admired Kelman’s skill in portraying the fluctuating emotions and preoccupations of the teenage Murdo – the way the author seeds Murdo’s love of music, for example, is trickled slowly through the narrative until we finally discover that he plays the accordion. Whilst the narrative is driven by Murdo, the book group also admired how effectively the author steers the reader to an understanding that Murdo is not necessarily the most reliable narrator. Through the chinks in Murdo’s narrative, we begin to get a picture of Dad. In a brilliant early scene, Murdo, who is silently berating his dad for fussing about their tickets, luggage and travel arrangements, discovers to his dismay that he has forgotten his phone. The pacing of the scene – Murdo checking his pockets and rucksack – and his father’s reaction to his son’s fruitless searching is darkly comic. Given that Murdo had promised to take his phone because his father hadn’t wanted to take his own, the reader begins to see a different side to Murdo’s personality. He is a young man who is prone to becoming distracted. This episode neatly paves the way for what happens later in the book.

Dirt Road is more than a coming of age story. With its additional themes of love and loss, its delicate examination of a strained family dynamic, not only between Murdo and his father but also between Murdo’s father and his American family, there are complex undercurrents running through this novel which reverberate like a fading musical note long after the final page is read.

Highly recommended.

Next time: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

A sepia picture of woodland

In the Mood for… Autumn

AUTUMN is the most romantic season of the year. For Keats it was mist and mellow fruitfulness. For me it is the season of crunchy texture and vibrant colour, nature’s grande finale before light and life is subsumed by the grey cloth of Winter.

There’s something about Autumn…

A certain nip in the air takes me back to the days of long woodland walks, dry twigs cracking underfoot. Kicking through leaves, scooping up armfuls, showering each other and laughing, not caring about cliché.

Stillness follows. I watch splashes of sunlight dance on broad trunks while you lift debris out of my hair with gentle hands. Your serious eyes drift to my mouth and I smile. Our fingers touch, then trace the lines and curves of other lovers’ names carved into the bark, an ancient heart pierced by a fading arrow.

Kissing in dappled light, surrounded by the sweet smell of damp earth and the warm breath of wood smoke. Above us, there might have been the flash of a brown feathery tail. At our feet, there might have been tiny beech nuts, prickly cases strewn.

Later, we find fairy rings and green moss carpets, scarlet rose hips and rowan berries. We pick blackberries, filling our mouths and pockets until our hands are scratched and scarred with purple. We have no basket for gathering pendulous clusters of elderberries but we  dream of wine, twin glasses glowing red in front of the fire.

The light drains. Chill descends. We turn back.

The air is sharp, the sky slashed red above the horizon. A crescent moon sits high with a single pinprick star for company. Your hand is warm around mine.








I Never Really Loved You…

THESE WORDS were handed to me on a scrap of paper by a fellow student during one of the long creative writing workshops which formed part of my M.Litt course in Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee. We all had to write down a phrase and hand it to the person on our right. The exercise was to use the entire phrase, or part of it, as the repeating couplet in an imitative piece inspired by Maureen N. McLane’s poem, “For You”.  Since today is National Poetry Day, I thought I would share…

Really Loved: A poem by Tracy Gow

Really Loved by Tracy Gow



Book shelf, books with pages showing.

October Book Group

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers


‘The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised I am a Chinese.’

AT THE BEHEST of her parents, twenty-three-year-old Zhuang (Z) has come to London to learn English. Her parents run a shoe manufacturing business and need a fluent English speaker in the family to advance their commercial interests. Z navigates her way through her first weeks in London with only her English classes and her Chinese-English dictionary to guide her. She is constantly challenged by her new environment, but she is not homesick ‒ the only thing she misses about her Chinese hometown is the food. Loneliness is a problem, however, so when she meets a man with a kind smile in the cinema one evening, she latches onto him and they quickly become lovers. But love isn’t easy when so much is lost in translation.

Book cover of A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise-English Dictionary for Lovers is Guo’s first novel written in English and was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007.

The novel is written like a journal. Each month is broken into segments titled by the word that Z is trying to learn. When read in sequence these words become a synopsis of her physical and emotional journey in the West: “alien”, “hostel”, “guest”, “misunderstanding”, “privacy”, “intimate”, “frustration” and so on.

We kick off our Book Group evening with a discussion about Guo’s writing style. I read out a section of Carole Cadwalladr’s 2007 review in The Guardian:

I not Chinese. I British. I prefer read book with sentences not made look like broke. I prefer writer who not pretend not speak English when actually I think she speak English very goodly.

If you think this is annoying in a review, you might want to think carefully about picking up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

There is an immediate outcry. Everyone feels that Guo’s writing style makes Z’s story feel authentic and that Z’s broken English is pivotal to what the author wants to say about culture and self-expression.

Every night, when I write diary, I feeling troubled. Am I writing in Chinese or in English? I trying to express me, but confusing – I see other little me try expressing me in other language.

Z’s struggle to articulate her thoughts and emotions in English constitutes a challenge for the reader too. Can we take Z at her word, literally, or must we permeate a layer of cultural gauze to access her true interiority? Later in the novel, when Z’s English has improved, the author goes on to highlight the gap between linguistic fluency and genuine communication. In the segment titled “Frustration” Z reflects on a conversation she has with her lover:

‘[…] It is very difficult for you and I to find the right way to communicate.’

You listen, then you say: ‘You really are starting to speak English properly.

Z’s relationship with the lover whose name she can’t remember (‘You tell me your name, but how I remember English name? Western name are un-rememberable, like all Western look the same.’) is passionate, but fraught with misunderstanding. He is her first lover and she cannot see why they can’t be together forever. Twenty years her senior and bisexual, he knows why they can’t be. He tries to launch her into the wider world by persuading her to visit Europe, which she does, albeit reluctantly, but when she comes back, she is forced to confront the shift taking place in her own psyche.

I feel I am detached. We are not one body anymore. This is the first time I feel this. There is a big obsessed ‘self’ separating itself from my body and looking at your body […] We Chinese are not encouraged to use the word ‘self’ so often.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers gets a thumbs up from the Book Group. Guo’s writing is engaging, humorous and poignant and members agree that the novel provides an entertaining and thought-provoking slant on life in the West as well as a valuable insight into Chinese culture.

Next month, the Book Group will be talking about Dirt Road by James Kelman.


Richard Long's image of a line made by walking

In Conversation with Sara Baume

In October 2017, I had the great pleasure of interviewing award-winning author, Sara Baume. At the time, Baume was nominated for the Goldsmiths Prize for her second novel, A Line Made by Walking. This interview has been published previously on DURA.

STORM BRIAN is rampaging across Ireland.

Works about bad weather, I test myself: Bad Weather Collage, Naomi Vona¹. A black and white photograph of a man in a suit. There is a blue paper cloud above his head and the head itself is obscured by strips of paper in white, pink and yellow. From the confusion of paper strips radiates a tangle of blue lines, like a minimalist version of Mr Messy. The blue lines connect to a blue disc of paper stuck over the man’s solar plexus.

Unlike Frankie, the protagonist in Sara Baume’s second novel, A Line Made by Walking, I have no idea how to interpret Bad Weather Collage, but it looks like an accurate representation of how I feel when I receive her email informing me that she’s had to pull out of the Dundee Literary Festival. I had arranged to interview Baume after her event, but with floodwater pouring out of the fields and into the roads around her home near Skibbereen, she doesn’t think she can get to the airport in Cork and even if she can get there, she thinks her flight might be cancelled. She’s sorry for letting me down. The tone of her email is warm; her apology sincere. I’m disappointed but I understand; the weather is beyond anyone’s control.

I suggest a Skype interview. She comes right back, apologising again. She had intended to suggest it, or actually not a Skype interview because she can’t do Skype, but a “good old- fashioned phone call.” I recollect something she said in a recent interview with the Times Literary Supplement about not being a lover of technology, so the phone call option doesn’t surprise me. She thoughtfully checks that I will be able to record it and we schedule an appointment.

Three days later, Brian has stormed off and services have been restored. The telephone line whispers a hollow gush and hiss, as if I have a seashell to my ear, but it’s clear enough. Sara Baume is immediately friendly, her speech frequently punctuated with a low chuckle and as we exchange our initial pleasantries, I know that we are going to get on well. I try not to sound inept as I tinker with the sound levels on the recorder but she is understanding. She’s had to conduct the “odd interview” herself and confesses to misgivings about recording equipment – she laughs at the memory: “Oh no! I have to deal with some kind of apparatus.”

Baume was to have shared the stage at Literary Dundee with Mark O’Connell, discussing her second novel, A Line Made by Walking, alongside his non-fiction book, To be a Machine. It seems appropriate, therefore, to begin with a discussion about technology. What are her thoughts?

She laughs and confesses to being a little out of step with the modern world: “I feel kind of between generations because I was born in 1984, so technically I fall into the millennial category but I don’t feel like a millennial – I don’t have the same addiction. I grew up without the internet.” She feels that in some respects technology is leaving her behind; for example, she doesn’t have an app on her phone for checking in at the airport. “Everyone else is walking through the gates with their phones out” while she still uses a paper ticket.

So what did she make of O’Connell’s book? “I read the book and was absolutely fascinated by it. He has such a wonderful style.”

For someone without a check-in app on her phone, the transhumanism depicted in O’Connell’s book was always going to be a repellent concept: “I finished that book traumatised. Probably the biggest threat to humanity is that technology will overtake us and the book makes a really convincing case for this.” She hopes that there is something inherent within mankind which will eventually override the insatiable desire to rush forward; a point at which people will reject notions of eternal life and be content to live for their allotted “episode of time.”

Baume is certainly cramming achievements into her own “episode of time.” In 2014 she won the Davy Byrne’s Short Story Award for Solesearcher1, a story about shore angling. Baume’s boyfriend is a keen shore angler and she decided to put her acquired knowledge to good use: “He still gets mileage out of the fact that I won that prize, so I can never complain about fishing ever again.”

Her 2015 debut novel, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither won The Sunday Independent, Newcomer of the Year, Irish Book Awards 2015 and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her second novel, A Line Made by Walking, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Goldsmith’s Prize.

Book covers of Sara Baume's novels

Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made By Walking

It might sound like a charmed trajectory, but Baume has had her share of setbacks. Initially studying a Fine Art degree at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, she became disillusioned and depressed about her lack of artistic achievement, discovered a talent for writing and pursued a master’s degree in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

I’m interested in her experience of being both artist and writer; how the two disciplines impact on one another. She tells me that having felt like an imposter in the writing world because of her background in art, she now feels like an imposter in the art world because she’s known as a writer – “So it’s imposter syndrome in whatever I do.” In terms of impact, she thinks studying sculpture has influenced her approach to writing the most:

I address a novel as if it were an art project as opposed to a piece of writing. I didn’t so much with the first novel to be honest: with Spill, Simmer I desperately wanted to prove myself to be up there with the regular writers and it’s only with the second one that I felt like I could do what I wanted – that I’d earned the autonomy to do something different – that was where the images went in and the artworks went in. I stopped thinking of it as something that needed a beginning, a middle and an end. A lot of truth went into the second novel as well.

She compares the processes involved in both creating art and creating writing: “Whether it’s a piece of writing or a piece of art, everything I make comes in tiny parts, you know, so if it’s a novel then I’m taking tiny observations or fleeting moments, gestures, feelings, details of the landscape – and I’m putting them together incrementally until they form a story, and with artworks, it’s the same.”

On the page those “tiny observations” translate into evocative descriptions. In Spill, Simmer, the grime in “Ray’s” house practically gets under your fingernails. I ask her if she has a technique for creating such perfect descriptions as “aluminium foil with its twinkle and gash” or the nose of a drunken hitchhiker “scribbled with thread veins like craquelure on a masterpiece”. She surprises me by saying she has “no imagination”; that she has to see things for real and then it’s a matter of finding the right words. Mostly this happens when she’s away from the desk:

I have a post-it pad on my desk and I come to it at various times throughout the day and I put down a word or two… at the moment it says “wind-burned grass” and “white calf”. “White calf” is nothing much, but it’s something I saw as I was walking and there was something striking about it. It was a really dim, misty day… that’s the process of writing for me in a way; remembering what I meant at that moment.

The writing process begins on paper and then moves to the computer: “But at various stages, I print and hold it because by printing something off and reading it again, it sounds different, looks different, feels different.” When she was doing her master’s degree, Baume was writing constantly because she had to, but it’s not the way she likes to work. Currently she’s working on an art project, so she limits her desk time to three or four hours a day. After that, “I can’t look at the screen anymore.”

We talk about her journey to publication; her surprise at being signed for a two-book deal with Tramp Press in Dublin: “I didn’t have an agent or anything in the beginning – I didn’t dream that anyone would be interested in [Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither] this odd little book about a man and a dog.”  Baume says that, in some ways, A Line Made by Walking feels like a first novel – perhaps, because of the semi-autobiographical element and because the bones of it were written before Spill, Simmer.

Although the format of the novels is different, Baume admits that both were “driven by the same sort of despair.” Spill, Simmer is narrated by Ray, a lonely outsider, who adopts a one-eyed rescue dog to keep down the rats in his house, revealing only by degrees the real darkness of his past. A Line Made by Walking is also a first-person narrative told from the point of view of Frankie, a disillusioned art graduate, who sets herself apart from the world both physically, through isolating herself in her grandmother’s empty cottage, and mentally:

The world is wrong. It took me twenty-five years to realise and now I don’t think I can bear it anymore. The world is wrong and I am too small to fix it; too self-absorbed.

I wonder if all writers become fixated on a single idea or obsession. Spontaneously, Baume raises the same observation: “I thought it [A Line Made by Walking] was really different and now, standing back I see that it’s kind of a version of the first book.”

I tell her about an interview Colm Toibìn had given to Alan Yentob for the BBC arts programme, Imagine. Toibìn had said he thought most writers write about the same thing over and over again and Baume is quietly amused. She says she has a vision for her third novel “and the vision is kind of the same as the other two and I thought: “Well, that’s okay. Every novel should be a slightly better version of the last novel.’”

She tells me she’s been reading Gwendoline Riley, also on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist: “Her most recent novel, First Love, is brilliant but again, all of her novels are really the same novel, re-written slightly better.” Baume likes the idea that a writer, like an artist, will re-visit the same themes, creating a body of work and continually trying to make it better: “Why feel under pressure to create work that you’re completely uncomfortable with just to prove your versatility as a writer?” The revelation that it’s okay to revisit the same themes has “liberated” her.

I refer Baume to the epigram at the front of A Line Made by Walking. It’s a quote from a J.D Salinger story, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period:

The worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy, constantly.

Is she ever happy with her writing? Baume responds with: “No one has ever asked me why I chose it, but it totally captures that feeling; artists never feel totally satisfied with what they’ve made and that’s what keeps you going and again, like Tobìn says, you’re just trying to make the same thing better all the time.”

Salinger’s story is about an artist who fakes his credentials to work with a Japanese couple who run correspondence courses in art. It’s a story about spiritual emptiness. At the end of the story, De Daumier-Smith has an epiphany which parallels Frankie’s moment of self-enlightenment: “Salinger in general – his sense of disillusionment – was someone who was very important to me when I was about Frankie’s age, so it seemed to be the right quote to put in.”

A Line Made by Walking grew out of a non-fiction essay about a summer Baume spent in her grandmother’s bungalow:

I was just over twenty-five and felt I’d failed at everything in life – re-writing it at thirty-one/thirty-two, there were so many times I was rolling my eyes at Frankie and wanted to update what she was saying. It wasn’t a reflection of me anymore and I had to stop myself doing that because that was Frankie’s version of me at twenty-five.

On her own admission, the twenty-five-year-old Baume had set her bar extremely high:

I had these very high expectations of my future which never materialised. I talk about Walt Disney in the book and how we grew up in a very American ethos – ‘you can follow your dreams and achieve anything.’ That’s not true. We hear about kids being given prizes at sports day for losing. How are they going to cope with life later on?

Baume betrays a lingering insecurity about her own success as she goes on; “You’re never on any safe career path. A novel that did well might be followed by a novel that does shit, so you’re back to scratch. It’s never plain sailing.”

I suspect that she has nothing to worry about, but she is worried; or, perhaps, nervous, about the forthcoming reading event she has for the Goldsmith’s Prize. I ask her if prizes are important: “I’ve been really lucky and I think they’re wonderful but I’m also really aware of the fact that there are many brilliant books out there which have never won a prize. I have no expectations of winning – the Goldsmith’s in particular – but making the shortlist is like winning to me. It means as much.”

Baume has come a long way in the literary world. Who are her strongest influences, aside from Salinger? She cites Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald as being particularly important, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Nicola Barker’s Wide Open is also up there. Barker is “such an interesting writer; I’m completely honoured to be on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist with her.”

Does she have any advice for aspiring writers? Baume’s advice is to “keep going. It’s right time, right place as much as it is talent. There are a lot of good writers out there, a lot of good books; they have to find the right people at the right time.”

We’ve been talking for over an hour and I’ve almost forgotten my ingenious work-around to glean some descriptive material to compensate for having to do this interview over the telephone. I ask Baume if she can describe the view outside her window and she laughs, roundly:

That’s hilarious because I’m in the window because of shit reception! So, I’m looking out over a misty field and honestly it could be the middle of the night because it’s so dark, because of the mist – there’s a wall and the sea is out there on a clear day, but not today.

¹ Bad Weather Collage, Naomi Vona, Saatchi Art

Exterior image of Blavatnik Building, Tate Modern

Visiting the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is an arresting building, a sympathetic blend of old and new. Its tall chimney stack is a legacy of its previous life as a power station, marking its south bank location like a pin stuck into a map, but even without the chimney, the building would draw the eye. The new wing has a crease in the brickwork, an unexpected dent which disrupts its shape, underlining its function as the home of modern art in London.

Inside, the Tate Modern is cavernous. There’s an abundance of smooth grey cement. Thick iron girders, painted black, are knobbly with hemispherical nuts, like braille. The space feels self-consciously neutral. Some might describe it as cold.

I spend an hour or so wandering through the free exhibition spaces. I see Monet’s Waterlilies, Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone, a Picasso and… a lot of other work by artists whose names I don’t remember. On one wall, torn white fabric hangs from wooden batons, recalling a wrecked bi-plane. In another room, giant fronds of stitched tan leather hang like blades of kelp in swathes. I don’t read the descriptive label, preferring to admire the texture of the leather, to marvel at the scale of the exhibit. I watch a digital piece “performed” by a deaf child with a sweet face and a shock of black hair. He mimes the horrors he has seen in the Syrian conflict, his  impassioned articulations requiring no translation.

Later, I think about the people I’d seen walking around with phones in their hands. In a dimly lit hall surrounded by enormous abstract paintings, I watched two men attending to their phones, their eyes bathed in screen light, their thumbs dancing. There was a pleasing symmetry in the way they were standing, heads bent, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. After a while, one of the men handed his phone to the other and posed in front of a painting with an expression of deliberate interest while his friend took a picture. I imagine his Instagram caption: “Checking out the art at hashtag Tate Modern!!”

Unwittingly, the two men have become elements of a temporary installation I viewed at the Tate, making a statement about life and art, but there is no judgement here. Who is to say how we should interact with art?

Who is to say how we should interact with art?

When I think about the digital exhibit with the deaf child, I know that the reason it moved me is because I watched it in a darkened space and the child, through his unswerving eye contact with the camera, seemed to be addressing me personally. The darkness, the eye contact, the time devoted to watching the piece all factored into the way it made me feel.

In a vast space packed with exhibits and visitors it can be difficult to achieve that depth of connection with the works on display, and whilst there is obvious value in having so much to see in one place, there’s a temptation to try and see everything. I wonder if that’s what turns gallery visitors into snap-happy tourists, more concerned with creating an “Instaworthy” moment than with achieving genuine engagement with the exhibits.

My visit to the Tate Modern makes me reflect on how I like to interact with art.

For me, spending time with art is like spending time with a book. When I read, I want an immersive experience. Not all books capture my interest any more than all art speaks to me, but when I find myself drawn into a book or fascinated by a piece of art, I want to take my time. I want to fall under the writer’s or the artist’s spell. I want to be taken on a journey, have my perceptions challenged or perhaps I simply want to be absorbed and entertained.

I recall going to the National Gallery in Edinburgh to see Het puttertje (The Goldfinch) by Carel Fabritius. It was the only painting I had planned to see that day and I had only heard of it through Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. The true story of the painting – one of the very few works by Fabritius to have survived the 1654 explosion in Delft which killed the artist – together with Tartt’s clever story, made me curious to see The Goldfinch for myself.

The tiny painting was positioned in a roped off area in the middle of one of the gallery halls. I was lucky to be there as an art group came in for a guided talk, so I loitered on the fringes and listened. I learned more than I can remember now, but it was with a light step that I left the gallery that day, my Goldfinch souvenirs (notebook, fridge magnet and large postcard) safely stowed in a thick paper bag.

When it comes to art, I have learned that less is more. I know now that I derive the greatest pleasure from art if I a narrow my focus to one painting, perhaps one artist, or one exhibition space per visit. If I try to see more, I’m plagued with sensory overload and intellectual dissatisfaction. It makes sense really. I would never try to read an entire shelf of books at the same time, but that’s just me. Who is to say how we should interact with art…