If you enjoy a “feel good” book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume is not for you. If you enjoy a book that is uplifting, this one is not for you. If you enjoy a book heavy with action and plot, this one is definitely not for you. What Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither does offer is beautiful prose, prose that is lyrical and rhythmic and mesmerizing. What she also offers is penetrating insight into the soul of a dysfunctional man.
The novel tells the story of a fifty-seven-year-old man, a victim of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma. A social recluse who never attended school, he adopts a dog with one eye—a misfit like himself who is also a victim of abuse, neglect, and trauma. They are both outsiders, fearful, mistrustful, loners, and lonely. Together they form a unique bond based on the qualities they share. Their identities merge to such a degree that the narrator occasionally dreams as his dog.
The novel is told in the first-person point of view with the narrator speaking to his dog. He names him One Eye and refers to him as ‘you.’ The ‘you’ can also be seen as an invitation to the reader to enter the narrator’s life. We learn about the cruel and abusive treatment the narrator received from his father. We learn about his loneliness, his isolation, his social ineptitude. We learn about his desperate need to find companionship, to find someone to talk to, someone with whom he can share his life. He finds it One Eye. One Eye hears but doesn’t understand. And perhaps more importantly, One Eye doesn’t talk back, doesn’t judge. This enables the narrator to speak freely and with unremitting candor.
Much of the novel is written in the present tense so that the reader witnesses the events alongside One Eye just as they are happening. But very little happens in this book. What keeps you turning the pages is Baume’s exquisite prose. She draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. Baume captures the lilt and rhythm of Irish speech, filling it with detail and colorful imagery. Her prose has a rhythm that borders on poetry. She skillfully describes the beauty of the natural surroundings. But not all is beauty as Baume doesn’t shy away from describing the gritty and gruesome in unflinching detail.
Baume has an astonishing ability to draw us into the mind of her narrator, to experience his desperation and fears as he experiences them, to see the world through his set of lenses. Although the tone is somewhat hopeful in the opening section of the book, it gradually shifts as we witness the narrator’s increasing desperation and declining options. One gets the sense early on that we are heading inexorably to a tragic conclusion.
This is a powerful book in many ways. It is also a sad one.