Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Sara Baume, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither. Tramp Press, Dublin, (the ebook is published by William Heinemann, London), 2015.
ISBN: 9781473535688 (ePub)
This novel is disturbing. It’s a first novel by a Lancashire-born woman with an Irish mother. She moved to Cork as a child and the novel is set east of Cork, but there’s also a road trip around the minor roads of Ireland. It comes trailing clouds of glory: shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, long listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and winner of the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year, Irish Book Awards.
Its focus is unusual: a child who is assumed to be mentally deficient by his father, who heaps abuse upon abuse on him, including deprivation of schooling, and worse. Ray, after the death of his father (his mother, he is told, died when he was born), acquires a symbolically maimed dog who becomes the only meaningful thing in his life, but who is quite ungovernable, which puts his very life in danger. And Ray, at 57 on the run, and homeless. It’s a love story, and a tragic one. In many ways, these two maimed creatures are mirror images of each other. Ray acquires his dog as a result of seeing an ad in a jumble shop window:
You’re sellotaped to the bottommost corner. Your photograph is the least distinct and your face is the most grisly. I have to bend down to inspect you and as I move, the shadows shift with my bending body and blank out the glass of the jumble shop window, and I see myself instead. I see my head sticking out of your back like a bizarre excrescence. I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the black.
Narrative point of view is really intriguing in this story. The narrative is addressed to ‘you’, not a collective you as it sometimes is (often a way of a single narrator hiding in a faux collective), but to the dog. And this choice makes for some very poignant images which attempt to understand the rescue dog, Oneeye.
Much lyrical language is expended in describing the dog’s other-than human antics and behaviour:
We have sardines and spaghetti hoops for our supper, with stacks and stacks of buttered brown toast. We have a tin apiece, except for the crumbly little spines, which I extract from the flesh and skin and sauce about my plate and toss to your waiting jaws. Gossamer ribbons swing from your beard and when they hit the kitchen tiles they form a viscous puddle of drool. There’s something resplendent about the way you sit in your viscous drool, and it suits you. Resplendence suits you.
It’s heartening to see how Ray’s relationship with the dog develops in a trajectory that is antithetical to his memories of his father’s relationship with him: he is willing to ponder on difference and to take the dog to his heart in an unconditional surrender to the dog’s unique (and quite asymmetrical, even ugly) features and behaviour. He’s aware of its vulnerabilities. If the son is starved of acceptance and affection, he spends his life in the pursuit of accepting his canine beloved. His behaviour is as compensatory as Oneeye’s devotion to eating.
By this second-person narrative stratagem, which gradually builds character, we to appreciate that the narrator is not nearly as mentally challenged as his father believed, and we also get a handle on why he is so reclusive, self-protective, and somewhat misanthropic:
Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me 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.
The tragedy of Ray’s isolation from his kind is unrelenting, and well learned from a father who is not noticed when he suddenly disappears from the village.
For a lover of dogs, this will be an irresistible read. It is a marvellous study of a dog, and how he is governed by his ‘maggot nose’, his sense of smell, as the narrator takes much trouble to understand the dog, using the methods of trial and error. The otherness of the dog becomes palpable:
How can every stone be worthy of tenderly sniffing, every clump of grass a source of fascination? How can this blade possibly smell new and different from that blade, and why is it that some requires to be pissed upon, and others simply don’t? I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.
Ray frequently worries about ‘impos[ing] something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good’. It’s not an easy custodianship:
Caring for you is like keeping a nettle in a pretty porcelain flowerpot, watering its roots and pruhning its vicious needles no matter how cruelly it stings my skin.
What emerges unequivocally from his analysis of his dog is that Ray is not the blank slate of his father’s creation, that he does engage in systematic questioning and intelligent contemplation of not only the dog, but the social system as he experiences it:
I know how the system of society ought to work. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I’ve come to believe this is because it doesn’t make sense.
He is even able to understand that he was his ‘father’s nettle’:
His big lump of an embarrassing son….A son fit only to be kept indoors, away from people and from light.
Ray’s observations of the village teenage boys and the dangers posed by others in the village, bear out the father’s heartlessness and that of small town life for those disconnected from the mainstream. The best image Baume offers for this is Ray’s counter-cultural identification with the Troll in the Billy Goats Gruff. He has no reason at all to have faith in people.
For all the joy expended on observing the canine/human relationship, this is not finally a celebratory novel. The first half is spent building up the naturalistic ordinariness of village life, and it ends with the beginning of the crisis which puts Ray and the dog in flight in a broken-down car on country roads all over Ireland. The final half becomes a different kind of novel, what one might call Quotidian Irish Gothic. It’s not Bram-Stoker-style Gothic at all, but much more of the daytime and ordinary world, highly recognisable and the more horrifying for its everyday character. I’m reluctant to introduce spoilers, but I do need to comment on Baume’s very dark imagination. The horror has indeed been prepared for, and if isolation and loneliness are the keynotes of the build-up, homelessness, corporeal dissolution and dessication are the notes that become unrelenting in the final half. The project of protecting himself is doomed, but the writer is not so dark as not to offer the dog the escape route the prologue promises, ‘running, running, running’. The final quarter of the novel is indeed a surprise ending, but it has a tragic inevitability.
This is a book to savour in the long winter months by those who don’t mind gothic and adore dogs. It’s not for a fine day on the beach!