This debut novel is an extended love letter from a man to his dog. Their relationship is the central focus of the novel. I’m always a little anxious about animals in stories (and films come to that- following a bad experience with “Ring Of Bright Water” when I was very young) and after becoming an emotional wreck from “Paw Tracks By Moonlight” I thought I’d severely ration pet reading. I’ve mentioned this before and a number of readers came to my rescue and admitted their pain threshold concerning animals is very low and whereas we may quite enjoy hardship being heaped upon our human fictional characters when animals, especially pets are introduced it might be a different matter. So for those of a nervous fictional animal disposition I think you’ll be alright with this one. There is as the say in the cinema trailers “mild peril” but I think you’ll find the beauty of the language more than compensates for that.
Ray is “too old for starting over, too young for giving up”. It soon becomes clear that he has had a lifetime of difficulties, particularly relating to people and coping with everyday life: “I’m not the kind of person who is able to do things, have I told you this already? I lie down and let life leave its footsteps on me.” Identifying with him yet? Ray’s life is a lonely one, his sole parent has died, leaving him in an empty house until he sees an advert for a rescue dog in a shop window. We know from the minute he catches his reflection looking at the photo that the relationship between these two will be significant.
“I see myself instead. I see my head sticking out of your own back like a bizarre excrescence. I see my own mangled face peering dolefully from the back.”
The one-eyed dog, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a badger, has a volatile temperament and becomes fiercely protective as the relationship between these two outsiders is forged. In a society which judges by appearances the mutt and the hefty, pony-tailed, slightly strange man prefer to keep to the shadows and as their alliance develops the further they become isolated from society. Dog learns from Man, Man learns from Dog. “I feel different somehow. I feel animalised. Now there’s a wildness inside me that kicked off with you.”
This might sound trite if it was not for the skill with which Baume handles this and most effective is the way she uses language. This may be her debut novel but I am sure she has a background in writing poetry, if she hasn’t then everything is there to suggest that this is a skill in which she would excel. The way she writes about the natural world is reminiscent of the best of Ted Hughes, there’s the almost elemental understanding of Man, Animal and Environment and an incredibly powerful use of words(she’s also hot on plants).
The novel is written in present tense, which I know gets some readers groaning. I myself complained recently in my review of “The Demonologist”, but then that was a mystery novel where the confines of present tense writing meant that significant events had to be carried out “off-stage” and reported. Here it works.
Given the nature of the two protagonists it would not be a surprise to say that there are very few supporting characters and so to keep the reader engaged Ray and One Eye have to be pretty potently drawn and they are. It shows considerable skill to ensure that the character of Ray is maintained throughout his narrative. This is achieved by his little literary quirks including occasional use of three verbs (“running, running, running” “nibbling, nibbling, nibbling”) which used sparingly becomes highly effective (and adds to the poetic feel of the whole piece). Ray’s repetitions and his thought processes help establish the character and clearly suggest that not everything is functioning well all the time. The sense of loneliness and the unfolding of secrets is beautifully handled.
This is a strong debut, skilfully carried out and Baume has recently been rightfully nominated for The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and for First novel at the Costas . It’s knowingly quirky in the way that “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time”and “100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window” are knowingly quirky and so might not be everyone’s cup of tea (bowl of kibble) but for the literary dog-lover I might just have solved your Christmas book buying dilemma and I will be fascinated to see what Baume comes up with next.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither was published in paperback in the UK in 2015 by Windmill Books