Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume reviewed

Do you notice that the older you get, the harder it is to find something you’re really blown away by? It’s a shame, but with age there comes that jaded sense of having seen and read everything before. So when something new and different does come along, it’s tremendously exciting. A quarter of the way into Spill Simmer Falter Wither, the extraordinary debut novel by Cork-based writer Sara Baume, I wanted to leap onto the blog to review it. It’s that impressive and immediate.

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Ostensibly the simple tale of a man and his dog, the book has a lyrical style that transcends the story of a rather tragic life over the span of a year (hence the title Spill Simmer Falter Wither / Spring Summer Autumn Winter). Ray (“my name is the same word as for sun beams, as for winged and boneless sharks. But I’m far too solemn and inelegant to be named for either”) has lived a reclusive life with a distant and unloving father, raised apart from people because he was ‘special’. Now 57, he suddenly finds himself cast adrift and totally alone following his father’s death, “too old for starting over, too young for giving up”. He seems to be an invisible person, someone who has slipped through society’s net.

Out of loneliness, he adopts a dog from a local shelter. OneEye – so named after a run-in with a badger left him maimed – becomes Ray’s sole companion and confidante to his tale of self-loathing:

“What must I look like through your lonely peephole? You’re only the height of my calf and I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrolled features and iron-filing stubble. When I stand still, I stoop, weighted down by my own lump of fear. When I move, my clodhopper feet and mismeasured legs make me pitch and clump.”

The pair of strays form a touching alliance, marred only by OneEye’s unfortunate antisocial behaviour whenever he meets another animal on their daily walks. These aggressive encounters draw the wrong sort of attention to Ray, who chooses to live under the radar because he finds people in general incomprehensible and untrustworthy.

In the same way that a nervous interviewee tries to imagine a panel of interviewers in their underwear to make them seem less frightening, he tries to lessen his fear of strangers by imagining their homes and the contents of their food cupboards. This is his take on the unpleasant kennel keeper at the shelter where he selects OneEye:

“I picture him at home in a house where all of the pot plants belong to his wife and the front garden’s been tarmacked into an enormous driveway. His walls are magnolia and his kitchen cupboards are stocked with special toasting bread and he uses the bread not only for toasting, but for everything.”

To say any more about the plot would give too much away, but this is an extraordinary, moving tale of isolation and camaraderie, of vulnerability and acceptance, filled with sparkling detail. The ebb and flow of a seasonal holiday village is colourfully portrayed; the great weight of marking time in an empty life rings true; and there’s the intriguing enigma of Ray’s father – a joyless man who worked in a sweet factory until his retirement, after which he dedicated himself to the solitary pursuit of creating unplayable board games.

Particular attention is also paid to the nature that calls to Ray and his wildlife-chasing companion. Though he has spent much of his life confined to his father’s oppressive household – perhaps because of it – Ray has an acute appreciation for the changing seasons, and Baume conveys this in passage after passage of gorgeous prose. In fact, it was difficult to select passages to quote as every word is so carefully chosen, and every line a gem.

Since its release last year, Spill Simmer Falter Wither has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2015 and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2015, and Baume deservedly won The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2015.  It will be exciting to see where she goes from this heartbreaking, uplifting and very special beginning.

Here she is, talking about her book at the Irish Book Awards:

Photo: StockSnap.io


7 thoughts on “Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume reviewed

  1. Thanks so much for introducing me to what certainly sounds like a great book, and a new writer too! 🙂 I’ve been wondering what presents to get my brother older brother this year for his birthday – this may be ideal. I’m sure he would enjoy this as he’s a similar age to the main character in the book, and has often told me about a book he loved to read a few years ago – ‘Walking Ollie’ by Stephen Foster (also about a man and his new dog, but not fiction, autobiographical). The fact that ‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ is also about an Irishman and written by an writer from Ireland will I’m sure interest him even more, as our father was also from Ireland. Pity he’s not still alive today, I’m sure he would have loved this book as he was chief dog walker in our home and had a great love for dogs. And I shall be interested to read it myself, Sara Baume’s writing shines out of the page!!

    I love the way you write the review here, very informative and not at all heavy going, as so many often are – you have a writers gift of getting a perfect balance!

    Thank you Anne for solving one of my present ideas, and for following The Writing Garden too! 🙂


  2. Gosh, Suzy, thank you for your generous comments. Yes, I think she’s an enormously talented writer. And what a debut. Maybe check out the first couple of pages of the book on Amazon first before getting it for your brother as it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea? I feel responsible for the success of his birthday now! Incidentally, there’s a short prologue, which I don’t feel is representative of the style of the book overall.

    Thanks for reading, and I’ll certainly be checking out The Writing Garden in greater detail.


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