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

Photo by Laura Stanley on Pexels.com

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

Photo by Ali KarimiBoroujeni on Pexels.com

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, its 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

22 thoughts on “Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

  1. Claire, until I read your post on Goodreads, I didn’t quite understand the wordplay in the title. It’s brilliant. Thank you for sharing! Sara Baume is truly an inspiring writer. It’s been five years since I read the book but I haven’t forgotten Ray and One-Eye. I have been toying with the idea of re-reading the book, but I am not sure if I would be able to deal with the pain again. On the other hand, I want to pay more attention, and be washed over by the lyrical brilliance of this book. I will get there some day. Your reviews are so full of soul and beauty. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thank you D, I think it would be a wonderful book to reread and I think you’d find yourself an evolved reader and likely not to have same emotional experience the second time around, especially with the curiosity you have. What I really would recommend though, is to read Handiwork, perhaps even before reading this. That will definitely make you see this work with different eyes and ears. I am sure I missed a lot because Sara Baume is a total player of words and a mistress of observation and clearly a dog-lover!

      Thank you for your kind words and for being such a kind and loyal follower and reader of mine. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the lovely suggestion, Claire. I will read ‘Handiwork’ first then. In your blog, you had mentioned that it is a sliver with almost a passage in each page. I love such books. I will add it to my list.

        Baume is certainly a poet, and a keen observer of life. As you mentioned, it’s hard to unsee the poetry in the title once we have spotted it. The beauty grows on us.

        And it’s a pleasure to read your blogs, Claire. I learn so much from your writing. Thank you for sharing your words with us.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I just picked up Everything Inside thanks to your review, and now I feel the need to dip into my pocket again for another book. Your bog is such an expensive pastime for me, especially as I only get to read your words at work. The mental calculations of how many more work hours needed to afford all these books occupies the other part of my break times. Also any story with a dog in it is always going to be a winner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everything Outside I got from Netgalley, and bring in the UK now maybe you can get it from the library if they have click & collect like I’m hearing about. Sorry to be the bringer literary temptation but the Sara Baume you totally have to read, you’ll live those two misfits Ray and One eye and Baume’s unique style of writing, I’m sure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Roll on my next pay day, like Mark Twain said, there should always be money for books. I intend to honour that tradition and widen my reading, with kudos to you with links to your blog, of course!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s really lovely to see a review of this novel a few years after its publication as I’d forgotten all about it… The use of the first and second-person narrative makes it seem very intimate – at least that’s the impression I get from the quotes you’ve selected here. Such a gorgeous review, Claire!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jacqui, yes, it’s such an accomplished novel for a debut, that confident use of the first and second person narrative and the effect that has on creating an intimate dialogue between Ray and OneEye. If you get a chance to read Handiwork, I highly recommend her nonfiction title, I see it was just nominated for The Rathbones Folio Prize.


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