A couple isolate themselves for seven years and become one person

SEVEN BELLS By Sara Baume “Seven Steeples” is a hermitage tale, of Bell and Sigh, a young couple hiding in a dilapidated, windswept hou...


SEVEN BELLS
By Sara Baume

“Seven Steeples” is a hermitage tale, of Bell and Sigh, a young couple hiding in a dilapidated, windswept house on the Irish coast. Their years are marked by never climbing the mountain above. They only go to town reluctantly, disguised in hats and glasses, to do their shopping or, after half a dozen years, to finally see the dentist. “Their teeth were also blunt, at that time, ground by pinholes, sketched by hairline cracks.”

Decay and neglect are the constant themes and the descriptions are beautiful. Line by line, “Seven Steeples” is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. But what’s odd is the complete lack of subtext. Usually, the landscape indirectly illustrates the inner life of the characters and promotes drama. But in “Seven Steeples”, there is absolutely no conflict between these two characters. In the end, Bell and Sigh became one, “one life”, undifferentiated. And although we are told that “Bell and Sigh had been deeply infected by each other’s way of speaking. … In their seventh year they spoke in a dialect of their own unconscious creation,” we never hear an exchange of dialogue between them.

To offer essentially no scenes and only usual action, no dialogue except a few stray lines, no drama, is extremely unusual. The point of view is rare, too: omniscient third person. Because these characters merge into one at the end of the book, we can’t locate either one, but instead must stand outside, relying on the far-flung reportage from five vantage points. : Bell and Sigh, their two dogs and the mountain itself. Dogs have the clearest differentiation.

In the end, the author seems to have fallen into a dangerous trap: being taken in by an idea. In the story, Bell and Sigh can no longer remember which memories belong to whom. There’s “a brother who skydived”, for example, but no recollection of who – for this reader, just not believable. It’s just not true that two people can become one, and the novel feels limited by this conceit, which has the effect of excluding the reader entirely. We know the details of these lives in absolutely exquisite physical detail, but only in physical detail.

There is vision in the novel. In the end, the people they avoid when in the village also avoid them, because Covid has hit, and it’s interesting to see two people who have voluntarily chosen closed lives. The novel is also an antidote to our age of social media, in which lives seem meaningless unless reported and seen. Bell and Sigh intentionally lost contact with family and friends. They only have brief annual vacation visits with the owner and a neighboring farmer. Their Christmas thoughts: “And they had nothing left to celebrate. And they said how little their life had become, almost nothing. (We of course don’t hear this discussion.) What they discover, in their isolation, is this: were together spontaneously subjected to a magnificent peace.

Baume’s descriptions of landscape are more beautiful than I can express; you just have to read them yourself. She is a poetess who elevates the novel, on a linear plane, to something higher. But I wish all of those descriptions were rooted in drama and activated to reflect inner lives. Instead, it’s beautiful nothings with no subtext. In this too, for lack of sustained drama, the author is a poet.

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