Book review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither

IT IS every publisher’s dream s/he should “discover” the author who will be as iconic as James Joyce, as commercially successful as JK Rowling, and as prolific as Charles Dickens. So when a potential candidate appears above the parapet the publisher will - rightly - not hesitate to sing loud and clear that the new literary protégé will out-Joyce Joyce, out sell Rowling, and outwrite Dickens.

These claims should be treated with a pinch of salt and generous scepticism. Occasionally, though, publishers do have grounds for such optimism.

In recent months there has been a restrained excitement in Irish publishing circles. Noises are being made about the Tramp Press’s fourth publication a novel by Cork based Sara Baume - winner of last year’s Davy Byrne Award - with the rather obtuse title of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

Tramp Press was set up by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff (the latter rescued Donal Ryan’s manuscript The Spinning Heart from the rubbish skip and it was rumoured she championed the publication of the Poor Clares’ Calm The Soul ) which gave this excitement some credence. So when Spill Simmer Falter Wither arrived on my desk, the normal caution and scepticism was, at least temporarily, suspended.

From the first sentence: “He is running, running, running...” I was immediately immersed in the world of a spaniel, One Eye, who is so much an outcast his own breed reject him and the dog shelter is glad to be rid of him. The book’s narrator is so anonymous he remains unnamed for the duration, although there is a vague suggestion that his Christian name may be Ray. He also tells us, among other things: “I’m an old man in the living room window after dark and the narrow mirrors at either side of the tall fridge in the grocer’s.”

It becomes quickly apparent that the narrator is as much an outcast from humanity as his new canine companion, and his quality of life as physically sordid as it is reclusive, but as he points out: “Everything is filled with stories, an old woman neighbour told me once, the same old woman, as it happens, who taught me to sew.”

There are four sections to the book, the title being an indirect acronym for the four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter ) – echoes of Donal Ryan – but in fact the narrative is in three movements, before the journey, the journey, and after the journey. Baume’s seriously seductive prose draws the reader into the existential and apparently meaningless existence of man and dog living on the edge of society where any contact with ‘normal’ society, whether it be animal or human, is fraught with danger. In fact it is one such contact that leads to the equally meaningless flight and journey (echoes of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ). The cold and wet of winter forces the errant pseudo pilgrims to return to the house and at this point the real narrative voice emerges.

The book’s most outstanding feature is not so much its overwhelming passivity, but that it is a totally absorbing read. This is certainly due to Baume’s considerable literary and narrative skills and, as the book progresses, our non-hero, despite his sordid and filthy existence, grows in human stature and dignity. This makes the ending all the more surprising.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is an amazing debut novel and signals the advent of a bright new literary voice. Whether or not she out-Joyces Joyce, out sells Rowling, or out writes Dickens remains to be seen, ach mar a deir an seanfhocal “Tús maith leath na hoibre”.

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