Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a powerful meditation on humanity

Sara Baume’s sympathy for her “wonkety” characters is infectious, and turns this portrait of an unusual friendship into something beautiful.

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On his regular Tuesday-morning trip into town, Ray, a 57-year-old man (“too old for starting over, too young for giving up”), spots an advert taped to the inside pane of the junk shop’s window. On it is a photo of a small, black dog, with a gouged-out lip and only one eye. As he hunches down to inspect the picture further, “The shadows shift with my bending body and blank out the glass of the jumble shop window, and I see myself instead. I see my head sticking out of your back like a bizarre excrescence. I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black.” It’s a strange, cinematic image and its meaning is clear: from this moment, fortunes of man and dog, misfits both, are inextricably entwined.

Sara Baume is highly acclaimed among an outstanding generation of young literary writers at work in Ireland, including Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle, Danielle McLaughlin and Claire-Louise Bennett. Her short stories have already won prestigious awards, and this, her debut novel (originally published by Dublin’s Tramp Press), was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Aside from a brief prologue and epilogue, it is narrated by Ray and addressed directly to One Eye, whom he adopts and brings back to a “salmon pink house and my solitary confinement, which is home”. Ray informs us bluntly that he is “a strange man” and “not the kind of person who is able to do things”. On his mantelpiece stand picture frames with the stock faces left inside; people avoid him on the streets and children taunt him on their way home from school.

The advert asked for a “compassionate and tolerant owner”. One Eye receives far more than this. Ray is a social outcast who feels “a twinge of camaraderie” with the fairy-tale trolls but, through imagination and empathy, he brings the world alive for the half-blind dog. As One Eye cowers on the back seat, Ray describes the view for him (“cherry trees lining the roadway in full flower, spitting tiny pink pinches of themselves into the traffic”). Slowing down, Ray pares back his senses and isolates the beauty in the most mundane surroundings – the constellations patterned in the black mould on his walls, the former majesty of roadkill animals, the life cycle of weeds in the garden, runtish yet vibrant. Baume’s great skill is to draw us, too, into Ray’s mind; her rhythmic, intimate prose abounds with startling sights, smells and sounds.

Man and dog live a simple life in their rural Irish village: they cook sausages, chase balls, seek stretches of abandoned coastline for off-lead exploration. Everything changes after an unfortunate incident on the beachfront involving a shih-tzu, its tiny owner and the flashing, gnashing jaws of a dog bred to bait badgers. When a stern council employee calls, wielding a net on the end of a pole, Ray and One Eye go on the run in their clapped-out car, loaded with a gas cooker and tins of Spaghetti Hoops, fish fingers and ginger nuts. It is never clear where they are or how much time is elapsing: instead of abiding by the dictum of clocks and calendars, they follow the changing seasons, evoked by the novel’s Beckettian title. Sleeping in the car, the duo live outside civilisation, forgoing the niceties that distinguish human beings from animals – the way we cook, wash, talk.

Baume occasionally signposts her themes too heavily. We don’t need a radio expert spouting forth on “how people choose pets they feel reflect the way they see themselves, and in time, the person and pet grow to resemble one another” to understand this, because, from the early pages, Ray has often dreamed from the perspective of One Eye, belting over fields as flies buzz around his ears. Caring for One Eye helps him escape the shadow of his domineering father, guilt for whose death still haunts him. But although his sensitive conjectures fill in One Eye’s perspective, the dog remains unknowable, unpredictable.

“I want to believe your intentions are good,” says Ray in despair, “but I doubt they stand a chance against your maggot nose.” His helplessness is heartbreaking.

Baume’s sympathy for her “wonkety” characters is infectious and their relationship – in all its drama and ordinariness – beautifully conveyed. Places and smells, plants and animals are conjured with loving attention, the narrative propelled by a striking linguistic intensity. “I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder,” Ray muses, as One Eye capers under hedgerows, smelling every blade of grass individually. Baume’s capacity for wonder turns this portrait of an unusual friendship into a powerful meditation on humanity.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume is published by Windmill Books (279pp, £7.99)

This article appears in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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