Sara Baume : spill simmer falter wither

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“Heartbreaking” is the word peppering the blurbs for spill simmer falter wither, and it is. But that’s not the only reason I had to read it in small sections and break it up with more pedestrian books. It’s so richly written that you want to give it your absolute attention. The title refers, obviously, to the seasons, and the writing about the changing natural world, in tune with the cycles of the narrator’s life, is superb. The narrator, Ray, has been written off since childhood, even by his own father, as a halfwit – but he’s an amazingly tender observer of the natural world, capable of being exhilarated by its beauty even in the bleakness of his own loneliness.

Misfit man adopts misfit dog – but it’s not what you’re thinking. There’s not a hint of anthropomorphic mawkishness. There’s no warm glow of unconditional doggy love for a man who’s never been loved or had anyone to love. Both man and dog are isolates, and even though they become companions, the dog remains a wild spirit most himself when he’s running free, alone. He’s bred to tunnel after badgers, and he’s been badly hurt, losing one eye, when a badger ripped him with its claws, but his instinct is still to go after anything that moves. When he repeatedly attacks other dogs, the dog catcher comes for him and the likelihood is that he’ll be put down. That’s when man and dog take to the road.

I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black says Ray when he sees One Eye’s picture in a grubby shop window, in an ad appealing for a compassionate and tolerant owner. He identifies so strongly with the dog than he dreams himself being One Eye, running through the grass half-mad with pain and fear after the badger has attacked him, penned-up and starving. He pours out all his thoughts, his secrets, his longings, knowing that he’s talking to a dog, with its own impenetrable existence, its thousand mile stare, that it doesn’t know what he’s saying. And what unfolds as he speaks is a narrative of man’s inhumanity to man, from the earliest harshness of Ray’s father to the cruelty of convention that makes outcasts of the most vulnerable. Ray’s need for human warmth, his capacity to share himself emotionally, have nowhere to flower but in his relationship with an unwanted dog.

Yes, it is heartbreaking, and very painful to read – but what a marvellous piece of work. It’s Sara Baume’s first novel. She’s a serious talent.

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