Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, Sara Baume

May 23, 2018

If I were to create an elevator pitch for this novel, I’d go for:

Man talks to a traumatised dog in order to talk about his traumatised self.

The dog One Eye reminds me of an early 20th century children’s story my granny used to read me about a Bowiesque dog that had one green and one brown eye. Although I grew up with dogs, I’m not a dog person. This can be explained by a couple of negative experiences and a mild allergy but it’s also because I’m easily overwhelmed by their energy and noise and, due to my hypermobility condition, prone to injury if they jump up. So I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this literary encounter quite as much as I did. In introducing the dog to his own world and playing the role of his lost eye, Ray comes to know One Eye and empathise with how he imagines he sees the world. Told primarily in the second person (addressed to the dog) and the first person present tense (a next stop for fans of Curious Incident?) S, S, F, W is beautifully and uncomfortably intimate.

The book is an odyssey that takes place over the course of a year. Bursting with verbs and the ands and buts that are the invaluable stock of oral storytelling, there is an energy to the present tense prose that drives you along with these two characters. The novel’s title and sections of the book correspond with the seasons – leaves spill in spring, falter in Autumn and wither in winter; summer simmers.

Ray’s connection with the harsh environment he was raised in and those he encounters is acute. Having lived all the life he remembers in one house with only his taciturn father for company, the protagonist’s world has been very small. In the absence of explanations for things, imagination and personal mythology fill in the gaps. He ‘likes to believe the house gave birth to him’ (p12).

Even when Ray flees with One Eye, they are almost entirely confined to the car. The reasons for this withdrawal are revealed as we progress through the narrative. Yet there is nothing small-minded about Ray’s view. His observation of his environment – flaws and all – is compelling even when showing One Eye round rooms he has lived in all his life. ‘The beaded curtain in the bathroom ‘makes a noise like a landslide of tic-tacs, like a leak in a button factory’ (p16). He describes ‘the black mould on the end wall, how it’s mushroomed into a reverse constellation: the night sky a white wall and the white stars black and wet and furry’ (p16).

You can see from this description that Baume is not afraid of focussing in on the ugly and in making it beautiful. This dog is maungier than the dog of my remembered tale and more aggressive but with its drool of ‘gossamer ribbons’ (p20) I was nevertheless doomed to love One Eye just as much as I loved the dog of my childhood story. Ray too is monstrous. He is ogrish, ‘a boulder of a man’ with ‘teeth stained ochre’, ‘clodhopper feet and mismeasured legs’ and ‘a fiendish habit of picking the hard skin encircling each fingernail, drawing it slowly down into a bloodless hangnail’. He believes he smells – probably of ‘must and porridge and piss’ (p7).  I was initially worried at such physical descriptions of a man who appears to have physical (and possibly learning) disabilities and mental health issues and concerned that this depiction might conform to negative stereotypes. Ray certainly sees himself as an outsider in his small community:

Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside…When I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible space-suit (p8-9).

But when he has a positive encounter with a child and we learn more about him we come to question whether the light he casts himself in is accurate. Moreover, what he looks and smells like ceases to be important as he and One Eye begin to make peace with their supposed monstrousness and that of the world that mirrors it:

Together, on we drive, with all the windows open, even though it’s cold. Together we breathe deep the cold, fill our lungs with fox spray and dead honey-suckle, pinemartens and stinkhorns (p192-193)

Ray is no longer the boy who ‘in every last newly-renovated semi-detached with off-white walls and a fitted kitchen imagined [he] was a different boy, a new boy, a better boy’ (p13).

S, S, F, W is emotional outsider fiction that is very much on the side of the outsider. Ultimately it is a love story between a man and a dog, a tale about how we treat one another, and of belonging but don’t expect any of this story to be shown through a soft focus lens.

‘Everything is filled with stories’ Ray tells One Eye, summarising why it doesn’t matter at all that nothing dramatic happens for the first half of the book (p20). The voice is so compelling, the poetic zen-like prose a tide from the Irish Sea you would gladly drown in. Besides, the more dramatic elements of the plot are worth waiting for. Our discoveries about Ray’s past and his own occur simultaneously. We wait for him to face what they have been running from and by the time we learn the horrible truth, we feel as loyal to him as he does to One Eye.

Reaching the final page, I was saddened to lose that voice.

Baume, Sara, 2015. Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither,  Dublin: Tramp Press

SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA FIRST NOVEL AWARD 2015

LONGLISTED FOR THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD 2015

LONGLISTED FOR THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE 2016

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2 Comments

  • Reply Moira Garland May 23, 2018 at 10:35 am

    I loved this book as well. Zen-like yes, poetic too. Looking forward to reading her second novel.

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