At first glance it seems only fitting that the first book reviewed on this site should be one that focuses so heavily on all things canine, but it rightly earned this opening position by leaving me reeling by its emotional intensity and poetic language. After finishing the last page and laying the book by my side I found myself staring at my wall for half an hour letting this tale sink into my bones.
We are introduced to Ray, a 57 year old man who feels underserving of a name that summons up images of sunbeams, as he goes about an isolated life in a small seaside town. Living, or possibly sheltering, in a house that he once shared with his father, Ray welcomes in his first real friendship when he makes the decision to take on a dog from the local kennel. Rescued after a life of badger baiting Ray seems to find himself reflected in the dogs now disfigured face, noting when he first gazes on the photo advertising the hounds face in the local newsagents “I see my own mangled face peering dolefully back”. Christened ‘One Eye’ the pair form a close knit duo who head out for coastal walks when the rest of the community close their doors for the night, Ray to avoid the looks that seem to him wary and suspicious, One Eye to avoid aggressive run ins with other dogs or small children.
They begin to fall into everyday routine and Ray confides in One Eye in a way in which he has never managed with a human before. Gradually his story is unpeeled, a complicated and lonely life with his father while friendship always remained firmly on the other side of the window he would gaze out of. An observer of life, he tells the dog “I’m not the kind of person who is able to do things, have I told you that? I lie down and let life leave its footprints on me”. This is not to be the case for much longer though as a sudden altercation on an evening walk forces this solitary sole to take to road with his scant savings to protect this one relationship that has come to mean everything to him.
The pair travel through the countryside by day and sleep on quiet roadsides by night as they push on, running away but with nowhere to go. The reader can do nothing but watch these two desperate creatures struggle on as they find solace in each other and their survival against all odds.
I was struck when reading this novel by the extent to which nature and landscape become almost a third character. The language used by Baume to describe the hedgerows, birds and the darkening sky means you immediately recognise the place they are travelling without it ever being named. The books title reflects the seasons in which this story is told and the pattern of new life awakening and then as the year goes on descending into darkness makes us wary of the arc the pair are on.
Baume has written short stories in the past but this is her first foray with the novel. She has arrived on the literary scene with a book that is tells a tender and fragile tale but is written with confidence and a slightly experimental style that has paid off, writing in both the first and second person, which adds texture to what could appear a quiet conversational piece.
I am a fast reader yet ‘spill simmer falter wither’ demanded that I took my time and absorbed every single word, a book that made me want to read aloud sentences and paragraphs to those around me exclaiming “just listen to how beautiful this is..”. This will be a novel that stays with me long after that last sentence, one that I will be pressing into hands of those looking for a talented new voice, Sara Baume – I wait eagerly for your next outing.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baum, published by Heinemann £7.99