Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

It is an interesting situation to have read an author’s work of creative nonfiction before reading either of her two novels, so I come to Sara Baume’s novel, knowing her as a sculptor of birds, an acute observer and thinker about bird migrations.

From Handiwork to Imagination

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature

I know she is someone who spends her mornings at her writing desk and her afternoons and evenings working with her hands, accumulating and gathering things around her, writing about objects, thinking about people, what they said and did, making things, a ponderer who crafts with their hands.

So when I meet the 57 year old man in Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it takes me a while to think of him as that man, because seeing through his eyes and listening to his inner conversation with OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog he has just adopted, I see how this character too, has been sculpted with as much care and detail as one of the many birds in Handiwork.

I have to remind myself the narrator is an older man, not Sara Baume, because she is so present, looking out through her character’s eyes, all-seeing. Her rhythmic style of storytelling, the repetition of words are all giveaways. I love it.

Handiwork was such a sliver of a book, it was over so quickly, small morsels, often only a paragraph to a page, it was a delight to go on a fictional journey here, once she was able to get her protagonist out of the house.

She does so, by his act of taking in a homeless dog. We don’t know at the time how out of character that is for him. The dog gets him in trouble and they are coming for him, so he flees, but little do we know what he is really escaping.

Stream of Consciousness, Second Person Narrative, The Unreliable Narrator

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume Dogs in Literature

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What great characters, what eccentricity gently portrayed, what clever use of the first and second person narrative, what a revelation, what tension, what joy that finally here is a relationship of unconditional love, even if it causes him such anxiety for much of the time.

I was wrong to tell you you were bold. I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.

A stream of consciousness first person narrative morphs into a second person narrative, the anxious man-child thinks and speaks in his mind to himself (I) and the dog OneEye (you). He even begins to dream he is a canine. This inner conversation cleverly hides his denial, rendering him an unreliable narrator.

Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that’s in me. It’s in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It’s in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I’ve given you for granted. My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.

One Man and his Dog on a Road Trip

Spill Simmer Falter Wither Sara Baume

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The road trip is unsustainable, the two of them experiencing a kind of freedom they’ve not known before.

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.

He thinks about his father sometimes, but has no memory of his mother.

I’ve never looked through his stuff and I can’t explain exactly why it is I’m so incurious. I suppose there are clues about his life there in the shut-up-and-locked room, perhaps even some traces of my mother, but better to be content with ignorance, I’ve always thought, than haunted by truth.

The presence of the twist comes as a surprise, we hadn’t realised this was a mystery, it’s literary qualities create the expectation not to have expectations. The element of surprise when it comes is genuine.

The title, which is also the structure is brilliant, only a lover of words and perhaps a scrabble player or reader of the dictionary or thesaurus could have come up with four words that represent the four seasons and almost begin with same two letters,  suggestive of what the four parts of the book represent. Signs of the philosophical mind and playfulness of the artist at work.

An Irish Times review suggested “the Becketty title is a worry, because it begs to be misremembered”, but once I see that Spill  = Spring, Simmer = Summer, Fall = Falter, Wither= Winter and I think about the four parts of the narrative, I can never forget the title. It’s like playing a word game, remembering it, the author having fun with her readers, well – some of them.

In total awe.

Further Reading

My Review of Handiwork (2020) by Sara Baume

Irish Times Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume: Greatness already evident by Joseph O’Connor