Emma Schofield reviews Sara Baume’s emotional novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither, a story of loneliness, love, struggle and dreams.
It is not often that a novel brings me close to tears by the end of the first page, but the opening of Sara Baume’s debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither makes for emotional reading. Starting with the image of a dog ‘running, running, running’, the Prologue goes on to reveal how ‘One Eye’ acquired his name. It is an apt beginning for a novel which is constantly moving, taking in a breathtaking array of scenery as it does is so. The lyrical rhythm of the title and Prologue also set the tone for a narrative which maintains its gentle honesty, while offering a raw exploration of love and loneliness.
The story centres on a man in his late fifties who is weighed down by his loneliness and locked in a constant struggle with his own thoughts. We are never explicitly told his name, but we do learn that it is ‘the same word as for sunbeams, as for winged and boneless sharks’, from which we are left to assume that it is probably Ray. He is a difficult character to like, possibly a conscious decision by Baume to create a protagonist who is often uncomfortably real in his bleak outlook on life. Yet there is something endearing about Ray’s slightly pathetic nature. The second person narrative lends Ray’s words an air of intimacy and confidence, no more so than when he confesses that he is ‘not the kind of person who is able to do things’. The almost childlike sense of helplessness proving as endearing as it is frustrating.
Ray’s words, however, are directed not to the reader but to the faithful ‘One Eye’, the pet that he acquires on one of his weekly visits to a nearby village to collect his welfare money. Initially united through their status as social outcasts, man and dog immediately seem to develop a sense of mutual understanding, their time together leading Ray to open up to his pet in a way he is unable to do with other humans. There is an endearing moment when the pair are watching TV and Ray admits to liking reality programmes because ‘without scripts, people don’t know what to say or say the wrong thing’, adding that ‘without onions, people cry anyway; people cry better’. His sentiment dives straight to the heart of the novel, stripping away the artificial elements of life and exposing what is left, the raw emotion of a daily struggle for meaning and a sense of purpose.
There are, of course, other characters who each have their own role to play within the novel. Ray’s father occupies an almost spectral position in the tale; mentioned at brief intervals by Ray we learn that he died recently, having raised his son to lead a solitary life. These fleeting glimpses into Ray’s childhood go some way towards revealing the difficulties he experiences in his adult life, slowly creating the image of a father and son with little to say to each other and even less idea of how to engage with the world beyond their quiet home and daily rituals.
Yet above all else, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a love story, albeit in an unconventional format. On its most basic level, the relationship Baume depicts is not that of human love, but of the bond between a man and the dog who inadvertently helps him to rediscover the world beyond his silent routine. It is also so much more than that; as we watch Ray’s relationship with One Eye develop we see him learning to love the landscape around him, reconnecting with a world which he thought had turned its back on him. It is in these moments that Baume’s attention to detail really shines through as Ray observes how ‘the sea relaxes into summer, turns from slate to teal to crystalline’ as he walks the Irish coastline collecting the washed-up items he refers to as his ‘junk-treasures’. In this respect Baume’s writing is not so much a narrative as a work of art, gradually painting an image of reconciliation, inspired by Ray’s moments of companionship with his canine pet.
As is often the case with first novels, there are occasions where readers will need to persevere, most notably in the dream sequences which drift slightly confusingly into the narrative and can sit a little uncomfortably at first. Nevertheless, these moments do not detract from what is a powerful debut from Baume and a startling statement from new Irish publishing house Tramp Press.
As mesmerising as its unusual title, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a lithe novel which dances through the passing seasons, defying its readers not to be drawn into the striking world it reveals. Approach with an open mind and you will be richly rewarded by this extraordinary, but enchanting, debut by Sara Baume.
Emma Schofield is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.