Having enjoyed Sara Baume’s most recent novel, Seven Steeples, I was happy to discover her debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, on my TBR pile (yes, I lose track of what is on these shelves). The story has a harder edge in the telling than her later work. The writing remains taut and beautifully rendered throughout, making it a pleasure to read however hard hitting the subject matter.
Narrated by Ray, a fifty-seven year old man whose father died leaving him alone in the world, a backstory to what is now a difficult situation is slowly revealed. Ray knows nothing of his mother. He has never attended school. As a young boy he was cared for by an elderly neighbour when his father was at work. Although still young when she died, he was then expected to look after himself.
Ray still lives in his father’s house, following a weekly routine that rarely takes him beyond the coastal village where he was raised. The story opens with his decision to adopt a dog from a nearby rescue centre. The animal he chooses is damaged, in body and mind, reminding Ray of himself. He calls the dog One Eye and hopes its presence will deter the rats in his attic from coming into the main body of the house. Soon dog and man bond, Ray’s days revolving around his pet’s needs.
One Eye’s nature is to run, to hunt, and to kill its prey, making it a danger to other creatures encountered while out on necessary daily exercise. Ray purchases a muzzle but is loath to force his dog to wear it. Instead they frequent quiet beaches and visit at times few others choose.
Ray’s experience of the world has made him wary of garnering attention. He wishes to be left alone even though this makes him feel lonely. One Eye’s company becomes his priority, even when the dog acts in ways that pull others into their orbit. Unable to deal with the consequences of this, Ray takes to the road, leaving his village and routine to keep One Eye safe. As winter approaches it becomes clear this way of living is not sustainable.
Unusually for a book featuring a loyal dog, it was Ray’s story that garnered my sympathy. His father considered his son an imbecile, a misfit in a world he was then denied a place in. Ray’s solace lay in reading, where he discovered other people living lives he could not hope to enjoy himself. In One Eye he find a friend who appears to enjoy his company, a being that does not make him feel judged and found failing.
As the story develops it becomes clear that Ray’s choices are limited. He must make difficult decisions that his background has provided no signposts to guide. The denouement is heart breaking but also, in a way, inevitable. A quietly devastating read that will linger beyond the final page.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by Tramp Press and Windmill Books.
I loved Baume’s use of lanuguage in this one. Her gorgeous word pictures of the natural world have stayed with me.
Agree, she writes beautifully. I want to read her other books now.