Already an award-winning writer for her short fiction, Sara Baume’s debut novel is in contention for the 2015 Costa First Novel Award. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is set in a nameless coastal town over the course of a year, the book being split up into four “seasons”: the titular spill, simmer, falter and wither (or spring, summer, fall and winter). It tells the story of Ray, a man who lives not only on the edge of the land, but on the fringes of society. As he introduces himself, he describes a feeling of “wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people,” and so Baume succinctly establishes not just the man’s loneliness but also his inability to connect with all others.
All others, that is, except for One Eye, a bearded black terrier who our protagonist rescues at the novel’s start. Ray seems to recognise himself in One Eye, realising that they are both unwanted creatures. The narrative of the novel takes the form of Ray’s address to One Eye. As he shows the dog around its new home, Ray himself sees the house with fresh eyes – well, one eye, anyway. Aspects of each room are described always with the dog in mind: “Now here’s the kitchen … the bins smell of garlic skins and spent coffee grounds and cigarette butts. Leave the bins alone, okay?” Ray seems to share with One Eye in a manner which you suspect he hasn’t been able to do before with other humans. As he encourages One Eye to overcome his fear of tin-foil, Ray explains, “I know you’re disconcerted, but I do it because you have to learn to fathom your way through a world of which you are frightened, as I have learned.”
The language Baume uses is gorgeous, rich and lyrical. Her deeply self-conscious protagonist is scared to leave his house most days, and spends much of his time reading in his chair. This allows Baume to fill Ray’s vocabulary with beautiful, uncommon words – like “drupelets,” and “diaphanous” – always used to evoke a sense of season and place. Other characters in the novel are not given names, only functionary titles such as father or aunt, which furthers Ray’s sense of disconnection from other people. Ray’s self-imposed solitary confinement with only One Eye and his bookshelf for company takes a toll on the man: “All the books I’ve read, they stack up too,” he tells One Eye. “The lines and passages bleed together. Sometimes I remember characters and think, just for a second, they were people I once knew.”
Although the novel is a joy to read, the first half does lack pace. Only in the latter two seasons does the tension really ramp up, as Ray and One Eye are forced to leave their home and go on the run. Their journey across the country brings new challenges, and two questions keep the pages turning: how long can they run for, and where are they running to? Both questions are answered with devastating beauty by the end of the book.
It may be worth mentioning that I read this book with my own recently adopted terrier curled up in my lap. Baume’s portrayal of a man and his dog – the immediate connection; the gradual trust; the near-constant worry; the absolute love – is so insightful and acute that I found myself holding my dog closer as I read. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a book I will happily return to in the future, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if its pages end up, appropriately, dog-eared.