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.
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: