Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

"Spill Simmer Falter Wither" by Sara Baume (Windmill Books, 2015)

The main character (a 57 year-old disfigured cripple, brought up by his single-parent father) expresses himself thus - "I'm on my way to purchase a box-load of incandescent bulbs because I can't bear the dimness of the energy saver, how they hesitate at first and then build to a parasitic humming so soft it hoaxes me into thinking some part of my inner ear has cracked" (p.8). Sometimes critics excuse such luxuriance by claiming that the narrator puts the inarticulate character's thoughts into words, but I don't think that applies to "It's a sound somewhere between cooing and keening, from an organ some place between belly and lung. Plaintive and elegiac, cavernous and craven" (p.27) or "It is spring in my dream. At first I think I know this innately, but of the things I think I innately know, I rarely do, I've only forgotten where they came from. And so I remember, it was the cut daffodils which showed me that it is spring" (p.30). This is not "out of character", it's a brain transplant. But it's a common literary conceit.

The loner lives in his late-father's house, always referring to it as his father's house. He gets a one-eyed dog from a shelter. He dreams from the dog's PoV, identifies with its fears ("it's okay to be frightened sometimes. I'm still afraid of almost every single form of social situation" p.36). The dog attacks another dog and maybe a child too. The loner flees rather than having the dog taken away. He stays on the road for months in his car, then makes his way back. During this phase of 11 weeks or so we have little sense of time passing or all the driving done. Indeed, it's unclear what year or even decade it is. On p.218 it says "I know each person is carrying a tiny screen in their pocket. I know each screen holds a list of the names of other people who are not here but somewhere out there also carrying a tiny screen" which is the first clue that we're in the age of the mobile. His limited access to people and the world leads to a very patchy notion of the outside world.

The main character didn't go to school. "With no one to guide me, everything I know is learned slow and fraught with errors" (p.40). Though he's apparently lived a sheltered life, he knows something about how others live - on p.98 he even uses the word "power-walking". He knows about "The people who visit fireplace showrooms on Sunday afternoons" (p.232). He has a way with words -

  • "Ducks are like socks. If you've only got one, then something's wrong" p.34
  • "Here's the sand you've already found dispersed about the car blanket, now it's truly everywhere, spread into bumps like the crunchy kind of peanut butter" p.47
  • "See the signs of summer, of the tepid seasons starting their handover with subtle ceremony" p.53
  • "My father's shelf full of gardening manuals would shake their spines in reproach" p.75
  • "My father's name was the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they've been water-boarded by molten-amber" p.85

Throughout, the writing kept me interested. The Prologue and Epilogue aren't necessary, though they're harmless enough.

SPOILER ALERT - Was it going to be like "The Wasp Factory" I wondered? Was the narrator somehow the missing mother? Mention of the rats and lack of mention of the father's death made me wonder whether the narrator was living off the pension of his dead father whose body he'd hidden in the house. The book doesn't really need such a melodramatic plot.

Other reviews

  • Anita Sethi (The second-person narrative, in which the dog becomes “you”, is a clever device, enabling Baume to “show not tell”)
  • Amy Weiss-Meyer (The plot isn’t the novel’s claim to originality. What gives Baume’s book its startling power—despite several (or more, depending on your tolerance) near-misses with sentimentality—is her portrait of an unexpectedly protean mind at work. This isolate, it turns out, isn’t trapped in himself. He’s attuned to others in a thoroughly unusual way ... where Curious Incident takes its narrative cues from a logical, rule-bound perspective on an overwhelming reality, Spill Simmer Falter Wither does the opposite. Baume’s novel revels in aesthetic leaps and dives, embracing the poetry of sensory experience in all its baffling beauty from the title onward.)
  • Joseph O'Connor (What elevates the book beyond the category of promising first novel is the author’s astonishing power with language ... This book is a stunning and wonderful achievement by a writer touched by greatness.)
  • Lucy Popescu
  • Emma Schofield (Ray’s character recalls Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and is as memorable. )
  • Kirkus review (The novel is set in an unspecified time before mobile phones, but even if it’s meant to be a few decades ago, it seems unreal that Ray could grow up without attending school and without any social services intervention. Baume perhaps means to make a statement about marginalized people who live unnoticed in the midst of their communities, but something doesn’t quite ring true in Ray’s isolation. The vague, sad ending doesn't help)

No comments:

Post a Comment