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Spill Simmer Falter Wither

Rebecca Foster

Sara Baume
Windmill Books, 288pp

One book from last year's Costa First Novel and Guardian First Book Award longlists held particular appeal for me: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume. It sounded like a charmingly offbeat story about a loner and his adopted dog setting off together on a peculiar road trip. As it turns out, this debut novel is much darker than expected, but what saves it from being unremittingly depressing is the same careful attention to voice you encounter in fellow Irish writers like Donal Ryan and Anne Enright.

Narrator Ray, 57, lives in his dead father's house near a bird reserve and oil refinery. He gets very little human interaction apart from his regular Tuesday trips to the village shop and mobile library. Initially this appears to be a portrait of a loveable oddball. Ray wears his hair in a long black braid down his back, like a Native American. He collects decorative plates and has bead curtains, comparing himself to a bowerbird filling its nest with colour.

Ray's life changes - for the better, it seems - when he goes to a shelter to adopt a canine version of himself: another unconfident, prickly outsider. One Eye is an ill-tempered stray who lost his eye to a badger. In fact, the novel opens on this scene, with One Eye running away from the scene of the injury, 'a hot, wet thing bouncing against his neck. It's the size of a snailshell and it makes a dim squelch each time it strikes. It's attached to some gristly tether dangling from some leaked part of himself'. From the start, then, Baume shows she's not squeamish about detailing the flawed aspects of life.

By contrast, the novel is also full of lovingly depicted nature imagery. 'I've always noticed the smallest, quietest things,' Ray says, and he describes them with a poet's capacity for alliteration and unexpected metaphors: 'We see wading birds at falling tide, gouging the mud with their sporky beaks, pillaging a subterranean civilisation of salted organisms.' Moreover, he defines his very identity in relation to the natural world, as in this coy way of introducing himself to the reader: 'my name is the same word as for sun beams, as for winged and boneless sharks.' He uses the same coded delivery for his father's name later on - 'the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they've been water-boarded by molten amber and stained for life.'

It's impossible to ignore the ambiguity in that illustration of a robin; with words like 'water-boarded', 'molten' and 'stained' in play, you know there are going to be some unpleasant revelations about Ray's father. We don't learn much in total about this cold man who worked in a confectionery factory until he was 76 and then spent his retirement making 98 board games, but it's enough to know that Ray was mostly looked after by an unrelated 'aunt' and spent his childhood feeling bullied and unloved. Ray mostly addresses his first-person recollections of his upbringing to One Eye, the 'you' in heartbreaking passages like this one: 'I'm not the kind of person who is able to do things, have I told you this already? I lie down and let life leave its footprints on me.'

The novel is organised into four sections, with the title's four verbs as headings. Are they commands, or just observations about life's course? Corresponding to the four seasons (with 'Simmer' equating nicely with summer), this quartet of words charts an internal shift from dynamism through stasis to deterioration. As Ray delves into a pitiable past that still has power over his psyche, his life moves from the fresh start of acquiring One Eye in spring through to the desperate leanness of an autumn and winter spent fleeing from consequences: One Eye has bitten two local dogs; knowing the bird reserve warden will come to seize his only friend, Ray takes the dog and sets off in the car. For several months it will be their unreliable home as they pass through random villages with stops to cook over a gas stove.

In a novel low on action, the road trip is much the most repetitive section, extending to the language as well. Baume frequently begins sentences with an adjective or adverb in triplicate, and ends many with a thrice-repeated verb: 'Swiftly, swiftly, swiftly, I untangle myself from the duvet' or 'Things are freezing, freezing, freezing.' While meditative and somewhat entrancing to start with, over the course of nearly 300 pages this habit loses its charm. As with Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, the style somewhat gets in the way of the storytelling, though the disorienting effect of the language is not nearly so extreme here.

Luckily, there's a surprise still to come when man and dog return to their village, and it's a good one: good in the sense of making you sit bolt upright in your chair, anyway; bad in the sense of forcing you to reconsider what Ray's mental state has been all along. Even so, Baume succeeds in giving a compassionate picture of a character who has not had a conventionally successful life yet defends his own value: 'I haven't lived like the characters on television. I haven't fought in any wars or fallen in love. I've never even punched a man or held a woman's hand. I haven't lived high or full, still I want to believe I've lived intensely, that I've questioned and contemplated my squat, vacant life, and sometimes even understood.' An introspective philosopher and his canine emblem of courage, there in the last place you'd expect to find them.