Not the kind of person who is able to do things

This is my review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume.

The intriguing title is a sufficient magnet for this original take on Ray, prematurely aged at fifty-seven, a social outcast since childhood, who forms a relationship with a dog he names “One Eye”, mutilated by a badger attack. The dog’s reduced range of vision reflects Ray’s limited and distorted view of life. They have much in common: both are physically repulsive, the dog because of the way he has been trained to dig out and bait badgers, the man through lack of normal “socialisation” as a child, never attending school, and as an adult never having kissed a woman or made a telephone call. Living in squalor, he fills his deceased father’s house with junk in what seems like an advanced state of OCD, yet he shows frequent kindness to the dog, and his voracious reading and listening to the radio have given him a quirky general knowledge which informs his turns insightful, warped and even humorous observation of his surroundings. An unfortunate chain of events convinces Ray he must take to the road with One Eye, in a trek which one knows must end badly.

Early on, Ray’s stated, “I’m especially afraid of children” suggests that he may be feared by the local community as a paedophile. As we discover fragments of his past non-life, our sympathy may grow, yet there is also an increasing sense of darkness and unease, that despite his normal passivity, even gentleness, he may be as capable of uncontrolled or amoral violence as One Eye. At one point, Ray’s observation that the dog, with his frenetic energy, is of course mad, is an irony since it appears that his own sanity is slipping.

The decision to make Ray the first person narrator, addressing a one way monologue to One Eye, involves us more directly. There is poignancy in Ray’s speculation over the lives other people live behind closed doors, existences which he can never know, but in their way as futile as his. Like other readers, I found that Ray’s “voice” belongs too much to the star of a creative writing course rather than an isolated man self-educated on a diet of junk shop and mobile library books, his experience confined to a small Irish seaside community.

This book is set apart by the original, poetic style which needs to be read slowly to absorb its intensity. The alliteration and rich wordplay reminds me of Dylan Thomas: “I dream it’s dungeon dark…I’m belting.. Demented, directionless.” The capacity to develop descriptions of ordinary objects and situations, to sustain them, page after page, brings to mind Proust, except that his genteel madeleine is a far cry from a decrepit cane chair, or a self-harming habit of picking at one’s finger tips until the bloody wounds go septic. Striking descriptions of a shoreline are outweighed by unflinching images of nature’s violence, the ugliness of pollution, the sordid detail of bodily functions. “There’s a layer of filth sunk into the grooves of the skirting board, buttered across the lino. Bugs creep out of the wall at night to gnaw the filth and its stickiness gathers tiny tumbleweeds of passing hair.”

Eventually, this unrelenting preoccupation with dirt and decay becomes oppressive and monotonous. I grew tired of the repetition of One Eye’s “maggoty nose and the triplets of present participles: the dog “running, running, running”; “We are driving, driving, driving”; the conger eels are “nibbling, nibbling, nibbling”. Also, as an author who grew up in Ireland rather than America, why do her characters “look out the window”?

Clearly very talented, Sarah Baume mars her first novel by laying all the putrefaction, bodily fluids and general repulsiveness on too thickly. In not knowing when to stop, the book becomes too protracted to support its slender storyline. I felt so bludgeoned and desensitised that I only kept on reading to discover exactly what sad conclusion it would reach. I believe that the ending has left some readers confused. After a few moments reflection, I was convinced that I understood it and that what seemed at first like a rather trite epilogue was in fact quite effective, except that some readers will find too bleak the sense that an individual human existence does not matter in the overriding life force which just goes on.

This will provide a well-manured field of topics for a book group: it will divide readers, examples of what makes the writing so original are worth discussing, together with questions about Ray. To what extent is he responsible for his past actions, or even his inaction in allowing himself to sink into the vicious cycle of being shunned by others because he does not comply with the accepted norms of behaviour? Is it credible that he could be so dysfunctional in some ways yet resourceful in others? His life may seem a tragic waste, but has he gained something precious in his ability to observe objects and the world above him so closely?

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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