One Man and His Dog

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

spill simmerThis novel, by Anglo-Irish author, Sara Baume, published last year and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, was our book group read this month. It’s fair to say that it was selected more by default than design – we’d all come to book group a little jaded with nothing in mind to suggest and this book was picked as the most interesting sounding in a small pile of recent paperbacks I usually take for emergencies like this. (We’ve since moved on to an exciting new plan for choosing the books we read – which I shall tell you more about next month.)

SSFW, as I shall abbreviate it to follows the story of one man and his dog through the seasons of one year and these, corrupted, give us the book’s title.

Ray is fifty-seven. “Too old for starting over, too young for giving up.” One day he sees an flyer for a dog-shelter in a shop window, and recognises something of himself in one of the dogs pictured. “I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black.”  The dog whom the kennel keeper describes as a “Good little ratter alright,” will keep him company and Ray christens him One Eye – for obvious reasons.

Ray is a misfit in society, a solitary man since his father died – the kind of man that people shy away from – although we know of no reason:

Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers e from other people. … I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. … When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental note of my registration number. 93–OY-5731.
They all think I don’t notice. But I do. (p13)

It’s been a sad and lonely existence for Ray, but with his dog he begins to venture out a little. One of his few interests has been nature, and out on walks with One Eye, Ray describes what he sees:

All along the road through the forest to the refinery, see how foxgloves split from their buds and tremble over the ditches. And when the weight of their waterlogged bonnets is too much, they keel into the road and their heads are crushed by cargo lorries to a pretty pink pulp.

On the beach, most days the mist is so thick that when we reach the mid-point and stop to look, neither end of the strand is visible, each taking its turn to be scarfed up by cloud. Now we must part a channel through the fog like a pair of tiny jets leaving a pair of reverse contrails in our wake. (p65)

Man and dog are bonding nicely now it’s summer, but one day One Eye goes for another dog, displaying his vicious habits that had made him a good dog for ratting and badger-baiting before. This event shocks Ray to the core, for the collie’s owner is bound to insist that One Eye is put down for savaging her pet. Ray’s response is to grab a few things and go on the run with his dog, and as summer turns to autumn, the novel becomes a road trip. Ray and One Eye live in his car, driving around Ireland, but it can’t go on forever so they return to his home where things will come to a dramatic and unexpected climax in the winter.

I rather enjoyed this novel. Although it was rather bleak and sad I found it engaging and well-crafted in the way the author teases out Ray’s story; the friendship between man and dog was particularly well-done and a lot of the text was written as Ray talking to his dog (with his ‘maggot nose’).  The way Baume describes the landscape and nature was lush and, as in the foxgloves quote above, sometimes quite matter of fact, but in her descriptive literary way you can picture the scene clearly.

Our book group’s opinion was rather more mixed and as only half had finished the book we ended up without too much to say about it, opting not to spoil the later sections for those intending to finish reading it.  Not the best book group choice perhaps, but a novel I personally liked. (8/10)

Source: Own copy.

Sara Baume – spill simmer falter wither (Windmill books 2015) paperback, 288 pages.

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