The trouble with marketing is its constant use of superlatives – too much hype. We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me. Hard to find words that will do it justice without floundering around in a sea of hyperbole but I’ll try.
Fifty-seven-year-old Ray lives alone. He’s a misfit – shambling, limping, barely able to string a sentence together in public, his greasy plait trailing down his back. On one of his weekly forays into the village where he’s lived all his life he spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. At the dog pound he finds the terrier, bad-tempered and alone, about to face the chop. Ray’s after a ratter, a dog who will keep the infestation of rats which have plagued the house he shared with his father at bay, and takes One Eye, as he christens the disfigured mutt, home with him. Soon this odd pair are inseparable. When One Eye’s terrier nature comes out, savaging a collie then a shih tzu with a little boy in tow, the dog warden knocks at their door. Appalled at the prospect of losing the only friend he’s ever had, Ray packs up the car and drives off into an unexplored world. As these two make their way through autumn into winter until the money runs out, Ray confides his sad story in One Eye.
As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s a slim novel but I found myself pulling out quote after quote. Crabs have ‘spots and spiked edges like pinking shears’; Ray’s hairdresser neighbour’s ‘gone on holidays and taken the hum of the hood dryers with her’; ‘Oystercatchers with their startled eyes, redshanks scurrying tetchily on strawberry legs, little egrets freshly laundered, whiter than white’ populate the shoreline. ‘I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrollered features and iron filing stubble’ thinks Ray, introducing himself to One Eye, sure that he smells ‘more must and porridge and piss, I suspect, than sugar and apples and soap’. ‘Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost’ poignantly captures Ray’s relationship with his dog. He’s a ‘wonkety’ man, afraid to be with people and painfully sensitive to what they think of his strangeness. The novel ends with a wonderfully vivid epilogue which almost mirrors its gut-wrenching prologue. It’s a gorgeous book – the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality. Dazzling, stunning, truly original – all those over used superlatives apply but this time they fit and I was delighted to see that Baume won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature the other week.