Bin the bric-à-brac
- A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 78515 041 8
Sara Baume’s first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), took the form of a love letter from Ray, a 57-year-old recluse, to his vicious rescue dog One Eye. Her new book, A Line Made by Walking, is narrated by Frankie, a 26-year-old artist who has a nervous breakdown, and stows away in her dead grandmother’s bungalow ‘on the brow of a yawning valley’ in rural Ireland. Nothing much happens. Frankie lives on the €5000 her grandmother left for the support of an obese golden retriever called Joe. She becomes convinced she’s losing her hearing, but it turns out to be earwax. Her mother reads a book about hypochondriacs – Proust, Warhol and Florence Nightingale – and encourages her to meditate with an aunt the other family members call ‘Buddhist Beth’. Frankie half-befriends Jink, a born-again neighbour who repairs her bicycle (‘It makes me wonder what it is about me that invites conversion’). She gets wasted on gin and shouts at a television documentary about the Sisters of Mercy – ‘I might as well reason with a toaster.’ She plays Björk at full volume.
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Vol. 40 No. 2 · 25 January 2018
Werner Herzog would be disheartened to read Joanne O’Leary’s description of his film Encounters at the End of the World as a ‘documentary about penguins in the Antarctic’ (LRB, 4 January). As he makes clear in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, he set out precisely not to rehash March of the Penguins. Rather his film is a documentary about humans in the Antarctic, in particular those at the McMurdo research station. Penguins come up only because Herzog, true to form, wants to know whether they are capable of being either homosexual or insane. Neither, explains a laconic scientist, though they do sometimes become fatally disoriented.
Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018
Regarding the fatal disorientation of penguins, Robert Falcon Scott said of the adélie, the species that interested Werner Herzog, that they show ‘a pig-headed disregard for their own safety’ (Letters, 25 January). I was stationed in Antarctica in 2003 when a British Antarctic Survey pilot told me he’d spotted one more than a hundred miles from safety on the Antarctic plateau, walking towards certain death. He picked it up and flew it back to the coast, where it promptly turned back in the direction of its doom.
It’s unlikely these penguins are insane; the survival of the group may be enhanced by the habitual striking out for new territories of a (small) proportion. Adélies can cross immense distances with ease: in December 1959 Richard Penney captured five of them at Wilkes Station, Antarctica, put bands on their legs, and flew them to McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea. By the beginning of the following summer, three had made it back – a return trip of more than two thousand miles.
Vol. 40 No. 6 · 22 March 2018
Gavin Francis suggests a possible explanation for penguins’ long-distance movements, which appear nonsensical to humans: ‘Survival of the group may be enhanced by the habitual striking out for new territory of a (small) proportion’ (Letters, 8 February). This shares in a common misunderstanding of how evolution works at the level of the individual. Extensive research has demonstrated that individuals of nearly all species always act to maximise their own genetic contribution to the next generation. Perilous actions taken on behalf of the group, at the risk of one’s own reproductive chances, are an evolutionary dead-end. Humans, with their celibate monks and suicide bombers, are an exception, thanks to the power of tribal influence on learned behaviour. Such conduct is found in very few other species, among them social insects. Homing behaviour lies at the heart of long-distance movement, not only in penguins but in thousands of species of fish, birds, insects, bats and other organisms, many of which make point-to-point, semi-annual journeys far in excess of the two thousand miles mentioned for Adélies. It is indeed mysterious. Understanding is not advanced, however, by talk of group selection.
Jamestown, New York