Much of what I loved about Sara Baume’s second book (A Line Made By Walking) – namely startling descriptions of nature and being completely immersed in a character’s perspective, no matter how uncomfortable – is evident in her debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither.
In summary, it’s the story of a loner, Ray, aged fifty-seven, ‘too old for starting over, too young for giving up’, who adopts a mongrel he names One Eye. Ray and One Eye are similar in many ways – both are accustomed to being alone; and both know what it is to be unloved and overlooked.
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.
They become companions, with One Eye giving Ray’s lonely days new meaning and structure – ‘What did I used to do all day without you? Already I can’t remember‘, and Ray tells One Eye, ‘…you have to learn to fathom your way through a world of which you are frightened, as I have learned.’
A savage dog fight forces them to take to the road, and in doing so, Ray reflects on his life, including his only material relationship with his father, long since dead – “…he corrected mistakes I hadn’t even made yet” and “…it was left to me to chip away at the surface of our shared silences.”
Baume recognises the beauty and cruelty in nature, and draws interesting parallels between it and the human experience –
I haven’t lived like the characters on television. I haven’t fought in any wars or fallen in love. I’ve never even punched a man or held a woman’s hand. I haven’t lived high or full, still I want to believe I’ve lived intensely, that I’ve questioned and contemplated my squat, vacant life, and sometimes even, understood. I’ve always noticed the smallest, quietest things. A chewing-gum blob in the perfect shape of a pterodactyl. A two-headed sandeel coiled inside a cockle shell. The sliver of tungsten in every incandescent.
The nasturtiums have it figured out, how survival’s just a matter of filling in the gaps between sun up and sun down.
Combined with simple observations about landscape, weather and flora and fauna, Baume’s writing is the sort I want to linger over –
The clifftop is studded with scabious, chamomile, campion. Ladybirds hug the grass stalks. Hoverflies tread the air… Now here’s silverweed, its under-leaves gilded like the scales of a white-fleshed fish.
The sea relaxes into summer, turns from slate to teal to crystalline.
Although the pacing of this story was uneven, there’s much to recommend Baume. Her characters are interesting and honest; the sense of place that she creates is exceptional; and her endings leave room for the reader to draw some of their own conclusions.
3.5/5 Certainly looking forward to her next book.
Before he retired, I knew very little of my father other than what I witnessed for myself. He spoke to me in a practical way, he never really told me things. I knew he always took a conference pear and a packet of custard creams to work. I knew he sat with his right ankle rested against the lid of his left knee. I knew he didn’t like the taste of plastic from the new milk bottles. I knew a hundred mundane facts, but nothing of his longings, of his past. Now I wonder if he ate all of the custard creams himself or did he share them?