Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, review by Shirley Wells
This is a raw, simple, yet astonishingly lyrical book about compassion and relationships--or the lack of them.
When 57-year-old Ray's father dies, he is left to navigate a world that he has avoided—or been hidden from—for most of his life. Ray, by his own admission, is lumbering and odd. His neighbors in their small Irish community have “long since marked me down as strange, a strange man, I am a strange man. And it’s because of my strangeness that they make a special point of knowing where I live. And they wait and have been waiting all the time I’ve been in this house in this village, all my life, for strange things to happen with which they can finger me, for which they can have me and my threatening strangeness removed.”
With the arrested mental capacity of a nine-year-old, Ray has been largely educated at home and has received most of his knowledge of the world through newspapers, books, and the radio. One-Eye, trained to hunt badgers, is an aggressively anti-social rescue dog, blind in one eye and advertised as in need of a “compassionate and tolerant owner.” These two outcasts live in isolation in their small village until an unfortunate encounter with their neighbors sends the pair on the run from the local authorities.
There are basically just two characters—Ray and his dog, both of whom have been shunned and mistreated. Or three if you count Ray's father who has died 18 months ago but whose memory imbues everything in the house. Using second-person to address One-Eye, Ray explains what he knows of the world to his dog and mostly what he knows is fear: “You have to learn to fathom your way through a world of which you are frightened.” Ray's gentle awkwardness is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s character Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but Ray has no George to guide him; instead, he becomes the guardian who tries to protect One-Eye from the judgmental world.
During their journey through the starkly beautiful back roads of Ireland, Ray talks aloud to his dog, revealing his innermost thoughts and recollections in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness dreaminess. Without hiding their flaws (One-Eye's unquenchable hunger and aggressive behavior and Ray's stinking feet and rotten breath), Baume brings us to care deeply for them. This heartbreaking and original debut novel is well-crafted to correspond to the four seasons in a year and is filled with compellingly-lovely and evocative language. Spill Simmer Falter Wither exerts a powerful quietness that remains with the reader long after the final page.