I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to finish Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither before the end of Reading Ireland Month, that I actually wrote my entire review last night, before I even finished the book. I knew there was nothing that could happen in the last 80 pages that would alter my good opinion of the book. I was right. I just finished reading it now, with a big sigh because I had turned the last page and then another big sigh because it was just so good.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the story of a man and his dog. That might not be a very original premise, but that doesn’t matter one bit. Because it is also the story of two misfits, told with the kind of intensity that in itself reminded me of a dog that has set its mind to something and won’t stop for anything.
The misfit man, fifty-seven, “too old for starting over, too young for giving up,” shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded, with steamrolled features and iron-filing stubble, with a name that is “the same word as for sun beams, as for winged and boneless shark” sees a photograph of a misfit dog in a jumble shop window. Underneath the picture of the dog’s mangled faced is the appeal for a “compassionate and tolerant owner without other pets & without children under four.”
“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.”
It is not quite clear what kind of dog it is, but it is a breed that is usually used for badger hunting. The dog has run away from his previous owner and got injured during his escape. His new name, ONEEYE, “capitalised and spelled as though all one word like something in African,” fits him well. Oneeye’s new owner takes good care of him and shares everything with him—stories and possessions. The two of them wallow in exuberance, handicapped only by the dog’s missing eye and the man’s “lump of fear” and “clodhopper feet and mismeasured legs” that make him pitch and clump. Every day, they go to the beach and slowly, the dog recovers from whatever trauma he has experienced.
“There’s no one else on the strand. It’s too early. So I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to unclip your leash, unshackle your harness. I’m going to let you chase and rove and zig-zag feverishly, to be your own unhuman and unprogrammable self, free as a fart. ‘FREE,” I yell. And you run amok between the pebbles and shallows and cliffs and caves, over the lug’s extruded trails and the seagull’s beak punctures. You’re chasing the oystercatchers, licking beached jellyfish, guzzling crab legs and pissing in the dunes. You’re moving in a way I’ve never seen you move before. Slack-limbed, almost jaunty. You wag your tail. This is the first time I’ve seen you wag your tail.”
Unfortunately, the narrator can’t take the hunting instinct out of the dog. After Oneeye has attacked several other dogs and a warden comes to seize him, the man packs everything that matters into his car and leaves. Man and dog set out on a road trip with no apparent destination.
“I expected it would be exciting; I expected that the freedom from routine was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying. Now nothing can be assumed, now everything’s ill-considered, and if I spend too long thinking it makes my eyes smart and molars throb. I tense myself into a stone and forget how to breathe. I pull the car to the side of the road and put my flashers on. I list aloud all the things that are good and all the reasons I must go on. Glass pebbles are good, games of football on deserted strands, oil refineries by night, jumble shop windows, gingernuts, broken buoys, nicotine, fields of flowering rape. And I must go on because of you. Now it’s okay; I can breathe again. And on we go. I put distance in front of my face and my body has no choice but to follow, unthinkingly, and your body too. Is this how people cope, I wonder. Is this how everybody copes? We are driving, driving, driving.”
And indeed, the man and his dog simply keep driving, buying food in dusty little convenience stores that never quite have what they need, getting washed in forgotten streams, occasionally having a drink at a pub, and stopping in hidden driveways to sleep at night. August turns into September and then October. Their road trip settles into somewhat of a routine as fall arrives.
“Last night, the in-between leaves dropped altogether and at once, as though a herd of nocturnal giraffes came sweeping through, stretching their prodigious necks into the treetops, stripping the branches bare and then scattering the stripped leaves over their footprints so no one will know who to blame.”
There is, however, some foreshadowing that winter might bring change: the loneliness is sometimes overwhelming; the car starts to sputter at times; there’s some gray in the dog’s fur; and one night, the narrator sees a majestic owl flying through the woods. He is in awe until later, when he remembers that the owl is a harbinger of death. At this point, I was a little afraid to read on, to find out what the owl foreshadowed. But of course I kept reading. And honestly, I did not see the end coming, although thinking back, all the clues were there. I am impressed!
In short, the story is a masterfully constructed monologue, wonderfully written, engaging in its feeling of isolation, sad and satisfying. It is fully deserving of all the praise that has already been heaped on it (see, for example, the Ireland Times review or The Guardian review or Deepika’s review). I hope you get a chance to read it.