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BookBrowse Reviews Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

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Spill Simmer Falter Wither

by Sara Baume

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume X
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sharry Wright
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Laced with dark undertones, this story about a special human-animal relationship will appeal to many despite its languorous pace.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither, set in a small seaside town in Ireland, is the story of two outcasts: a socially crippled man and a one-eyed dog, who find — and bring comfort to — each other. The title is a descriptive word play on the four seasons over which the story takes place, and sets the novel's slightly dark and melancholy tone.

The book opens with a dog running wild, his left eye dangling from "some gristly tether." And then we are inside the head of a man peering in the window of a junk shop, noticing an ad from the local shelter seeking a compassionate and tolerant owner. The narrator, Ray, describes himself as a hulking man who lives alone in his recently deceased father's house. He proceeds to describe his world and tell his story in first person present to the dog he adopts and names One Eye.

Ray is fifty-seven, fearful of social interaction and filled with self-loathing. He sees himself as a troll in a book of fairy tales and believes the people in his village dislike and avoid him. He tells the dog: "Everywhere I go it's as though I'm wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people...when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible space suit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup button and takes her toilet break." In the beginning it isn't clear why Ray didn't go to school, has never had a job, has always lived with and was supported by his father, and up until recently hardly ever left the house. But it is slowly revealed that it was his father who made him feel inferior and unfit for the world. Having lived such an isolated life for fifty-seven years, Ray still believes he is the incapable oaf his father said he was — nothing and nobody in his life has corrected or contradicted this belief.

Despite his melancholy self-deprecation, Ray comes across as a kind man who takes special care of his damaged, abused and fearful dog. As Ray and One Eye grow more accustomed to each other, they become inseparable — two unwanted outcasts devoted to each other. One Eye gives Ray's life meaning. Ray wonders: "Where were you last winter? I find it hard to picture a time when we were simultaneously alive, yet separate. Now you are like a bonus limb. Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost." This depiction of the bond that grows between a human and an animal and how it can begin to mend and comfort two damaged, rejected souls, is the most charming and moving part of the story.

The writing is poetic, lyrical and quite eloquent which I found to be a disconnect from the bumbling, simple, uneducated and awkward man we are presented with. Speaking to One Eye about his dog dish, Ray says, "Now the food bowl is the epicenter, to which the house is attached and everything beyond radiates from, like sun beams, like stingers of winged and boneless sharks…" It's hard to fit this narrative voice with the image Ray paints of himself.

This is not a plot-driven story — the pace in the first half is very slow. Things change when Ray and One Eye quickly flee the village after a dogfight and take to the road for an extended aimless road trip. But after the initial urgent need to leave home, the tempo slows again and remains languid. Towards the end, there is some character growth, and a dark secret that is only vaguely hinted at earlier, is revealed. This affects the way the reader understands everything that has come before. The novel's wrap is open to interpretation — the reader is left to imagine what happens to Ray and One Eye. This might be a disappointment to those who like things neatly tied up.

Despite its flaws, I found Spill Simmer Falter Wither both moving and unforgettable, and recommend it to readers who enjoy literary, quietly paced character studies that focus on the healing bond between humans and animals.

Reviewed by Sharry Wright

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2016, and has been updated for the March 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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