Book review: spill, simmer, falter, wither

spill, simmer, falter, wither, the début novel — one of the most highly anticipated in years —– of Lancashire-born writer and artist, Sara Baume, now resident in East Cork, presents us with a love story, of sorts, a direct and deliciously tragic paean from a man to his dog.

spill, simmer, falter, wither

Sara Baume

Tramp Press, €12

spill, simmer, falter, wither, the début novel — one of the most highly anticipated in years —– of Lancashire-born writer and artist, Sara Baume, now resident in East Cork, presents us with a love story, of sorts, a direct and deliciously tragic paean from a man to his dog.

Our narrator (whose name goes unspoken but is implied by the gently cryptic clue: “the same word as for sunbeams, as for winged and boneless sharks”) has been born on the fringes of the world. “Not quite right-minded”, and raised alone by a father who showed him little in the way of affection, he never started school and never learned to properly integrate.

A neighbouring ‘aunt’, who watched over him while his father held down a job at a local sweet factory, taught him to read and to minimally function, but his life remained largely one of isolation and shame, dense with boyish fears.

Tormented constantly by the other local children, he came to consider himself of the same species as the troll beneath the bridge in ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’.

Now, mired in late middle-age, and finally alone after his father, at 84, choked to death on a morsel of sausage, he lives as an outcast, perched on the edge of a south coast village, risking exposure only once a week when he ventures to the local post office to collect a life-preserving social welfare payment.

And it is on one such springtime Tuesday that he sees a notice taped to the window of the jumble shop: a photograph of a dog and an appeal for “a compassionate & tolerant owner... a person without other pets & without children under four”.

The dog in question is an outcast too, a “vicious little bugger” who has been through the wars at the cost of an eye and is good now for little more than ratting. Saved from the injection by a single day, he proves a natural companion.

The pair settle in together and quickly form an attachment, and they pass the days of summer enjoying long walks on Tawny Bay. But when One Eye savages a shih tzu, and possibly bites the young owner, the gardaí arrive at the cottage door with questions to be answered.

The only solution is to run. They pack the car and set out, moving slowly, aimlessly, northwards, eating heated cans of spaghetti hoops, knitting well with nature but avoiding, as much as possible, human contact, and parking to sleep in country field entrances where, “at night, sheep look like walking headstones”.

As long as the money lasts, they can keep going. But as the year approaches its close, there is again the pull of home, and the terrible facts that must be faced.

Miss Baume has been making quiet waves on the Irish literary scene over the past couple of years, but announced herself as a major talent when her short story, ‘Solesearcher1’, scooped the 2014 Davy Byrnes Award.

With a wonderfully lyrical title presenting itself as the four seasons, this is the first novel of an ambitious stylist with an astonishing eye for detail and a clear passion for language. But it is the beautifully measured control of plot and the authenticity of the narrative voice that most impresses.

Published by Tramp Press, one of the most exciting new platforms for Irish literature, spill, simmer, falter, wither not only offers further proof that she is one to watch but establishes beyond doubt that she ranks comfortably among the finest writers currently at work within these shores.


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