Book Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither

Sara Baume’s extraordinary debut follows a year in the life of a 57-year-old recluse and a small one-eyed dog bred for digging and badger baiting.

Through the narrator’s opaque musings, we learn that his name is “the same word as for sunbeams, as for winged and boneless sharks” and that his father, a major presence in the novel, has died 18 months earlier.

Halfway through his rambling narrative, Ray acknowledges he is an outcast in the small Irish community he inhabits: “They’ve long since marked me down as strange, a strange man, I am a strange man. And it’s because of my strangeness that they make a special point of knowing where I live. And they wait and have been waiting all the time I’ve been in this house in this village, all my life, for strange things to happen with which they can finger me, for which they can have me and my threatening strangeness removed.”

It is this self-awareness that draws Ray to One Eye. He is a similar misfit, wounded, always snapping at other dogs and distrustful of humans. Baume gradually reveals that both have been shunned and mistreated. Trust and love quickly blossom between the two but Ray knows that they are in trouble when One Eye sinks his fangs into the neck of a local shih tzu.

Baume’s lyrical use of language is impressive. She takes her time to reveal the psychological scars that have shaped Ray. He switches between the first and second person, projecting his emotions and thoughts on to One Eye. In this way, Baume brilliantly builds up vivid portraits of them both. Never hiding their flaws – One Eye’s insatiable greed, his “maggoty nose” and Ray’s stinking feet and turgid breath – she makes us care deeply for them. Ray’s character recalls Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and is as memorable.

Outwardly he appears slow-witted and lumbering but then we realise Ray is racing with thoughts and ideas, too many to handle, and has no one with whom to share them. His knowledge is cobbled together from observing others, from the radio, newspapers, and books.

Man and dog are planted in a landscape that is by turn harsh and beautiful. Carefully structured to follow the changing seasons, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a heart-breaking read and heralds Baume as a major new talent.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday