Book Review: Solesearcher1


Like Benjamin Myers’ A Stone Statue In The Future, it would be a stretch to describe Solesearcher1 as a book. It is Sara Baume’s first published work, a short story that won her the Davy Byrne Prize in 2014. I was kindly sent a digital copy (a format I struggle to engage with) so I printed and bound it to create a copy I can now keep on my shelves. A little book albeit a mere 17 pages in length.

The protagonist of the story is Phil, a plumber by trade like her father before her. Every Sunday she goes sea fishing, and it is during this pursuit that we are first introduced. She dreams of catching a Dover sole – ‘almost impossible to catch on a line from the shore.’ 

After work each evening Phil goes for a drink at a local pub. Few women other than she frequent the place. Phil lives alone in ‘a tiny terrace house on the seafront of a village’. In stormy weather the downstairs can flood. On Saturdays she visits her father. They share a bland meal and watch television together. Fishing is, however, what Phil cares about.

“Only on Sundays does she cease egging time on until the next thing. Only with saltwater pressing waist-high against her waders does she feel calm, comforted by the squeeze of the sea. Only waiting for a bite is she content to simply wait.”

As the story unfolds there is a mystery around dogs going missing. Distraught owners put up notices. It is discussed at the pub. Phil keeps an eye out for these creatures when driving to and from jobs. The winter weather is making her fishing more challenging. Surrounds are now viewed through a bleak lens.

“she feels very suddenly and very powerfully as though her world is dwindling away, morsel by morsel, without ever being replenished.”

As with the author’s later works – I have read Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Seven Steeplesthe tale being told is well structured, spare and taut, while retaining reader attention. The evocative prose style lingers. Each character is well portrayed, adding depth to the narrative and acting as conduits to the sense of place. The denouement pulls the various threads together with a satisfying, somehow vividly understated, scene. 

I very much enjoyed this story, as I have everything so far read by this author. I am now eager to acquire her remaining works.

My sincere thanks to David Collard for sending me a copy of Solesearcher1.


Book Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither

spill simmer

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.

Book Review: Seven Steeples

“Bell and Sigh were curious to see what would happen when two solitary misanthropes tried to live together”

Seven Steeples, by Sara Baume, is set in and around a remote and decaying house in the south-west of Ireland. It follows a young couple through seven years of their lives during which they do everything they can to live apart from other people. Other than the essentials for survival they make few purchases, managing without when things break. Their days are habitual. They gain pleasure from walking their locality, observing and discussing the small changes that occur due to: human activity and carelessness, seasonal change.

The story opens in early January. Bell and Sigh arrive at the house they have arranged to rent, bringing with them a single van load of possessions and their dogs, that must now get used to living together as a family. The couple first met the previous summer, to climb a mountain with mutual friends. He worked in a factory, she as a waitress. They are happy to leave Dublin behind, along with their large families and exigent friends.

The house overlooks a farm and what may be a large hill or a small mountain. It is not the most salubrious of residences but it suits its new occupants well. They feel no need to be fastidious in their habits. They relish the space they now have all to themselves.

Days are spent enacting routine tasks, all the while observing each change in their surrounds. They tend to their garden although have little luck in attempts to grow food there. Sigh fishes with more success. Both swim in the sea regularly. They keep the house as they want without concern for social convention.

As time passes they shed all wider obligations, happy to lose contact with people who previously expected to spend time with them. Other than the farmer, their landlord, and those they pass by in town while doing necessary shopping, they avoid other people as much as is possible.

“A successful trip out was one in which they met no one”

While in some respects a gentle story focusing on the rhythms of day to day living, the life Bell and Sigh choose to live has an elemental feel. Alongside the changing weather, the growth and decay of nature, there is no shying away from: build up of dirt, deterioration, how animals are treated and behave. The dogs in particular have many truly disgusting habits when allowed to roam free. They sometimes kill when able to grasp the opportunity.

Bell and Sigh also share their home with: mice, spiders, the detritus that accumulates if not tidied away. They become ‘poor and shabby without noticing’. Their unassuming outlook provides the reader with food for thought in how most choose to live and why.

“They walked the way they always walked”

As season after season changes the couple grow ever more insular. Their days are marked by activity observed in the fields and landscape: the plants and farm animals, the wildlife that comes and goes, effects of storms and men. They develop rituals for cooking and cleaning (although the house is never clean). They become creatures of habit.

“In six years they had never once been brave enough to attempt cooking something entirely new and run the risk of having to eat a horrible dinner”

Time is measured in: empty bottles collected, washing sponges discarded, the gradual increase in grey on the dogs fur and their hair. Knobs fall off appliances. Clothing merges into one messy pile. They no longer notice the noises made by house and land, the accumulated smells of dog, damp and burnt cooking oil.

“They travelled a twenty-mile radius from the house, never straying a yard further, in the past or present, online or in life”

The author avoids waxing lyrical on the beauty of nature but what comes across keenly are the pleasures to be found on shedding superficial and vacuous preoccupations. When plans are made and then forgotten they are shown to be unimportant. Life is lived in the present.

An affirming and uplifting take on acceptance, on finding joy in whatever can be had, paying little heed to media driven dissatisfaction or aspiration. Such a basic, solitary life may suit few people, but all could benefit from appreciating where they are now above where they are endlessly berated for not being.

The prose style and structure tells the story to perfection, the use of language understated and effortlessly engaging. There is much to consider and unpack in the spare, evocative telling. For seven years Bell and Sigh did not climb the mountain, even though it was there. The life led in the meantime suited them anyway.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tramp Press.