Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations …

A Review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Sara Baume

I am miles behind everyone else in discovering Sara Baume. I was leafing through the Guardian reviews and came across a review of her latest book. It sounded appealing but still had a couple of weeks to go before publication date. I was so intrigued by this review that deciding I couldn’t wait, so downloaded the debut novel by the same author called Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither a book that had itself previously been longlisted for the Guardian first book award.  Back to ideas of what it is to be alone but this time not in the city.

The surface story of the book is a road trip – man and dog. So far so Steinbeck. But this journey is not just a restless road trip of self discovery – although like any trip it involves that too – but a journey of escape. What is extraordinary about this novel is the voice and how the pace is maintained without any substantial plot.

The protagonist is a man in his late fifties whose father has died leaving him in a pink bungalow in a seaside “village which hums”, the humming being the result of the location of the house near an oil refinery and power plant. The dog arrives after the man sees a picture on a re-homing poster pasted up by a local dog rescue centre.

Throughout this novel, man and beast develop an empathy which is cleverly – and poetically – built up and described that what the dog can see or smell, or feel or lick, seems to travel down to the reader through a reliable intermediary. When the narrator says ‘Come with me through the fields’ it is not the ‘Reader, I married him’ style of address of the omniscient narrator, but a direct address from man to dog.  This continues almost through, quite credibly.   Why would not a lonely man talk to his dog?  When the two are forced on the run:

‘You’re drawn on by your panic worthy scent, I’m drawn on by the sun winking through the scraggled branches…’

it suddenly becomes imperative that both should succeed.  But will they?

The road trip gives the writer a chance to vent her full talent for natural description of the passing seasons and Britain’s half-worshipped, half-abandoned countryside. These writings are poignant and elegant with the occasional intervention of death in the form of roadkill. There is a balance (as always?) between loss and finding and it is evoked beautifully here.

The man fears a world that he does not understand, but when he finds something to care for and love that brings an even greater fear of loss. It is a fear which communicates itself to the reader. What can help allay those fears? Can anything?

“Now all the ditch’s tiny celebrations and devastations proliferate and fill me, buoy me, and in this way, the fear subsides to some degree.”

I am much looking forward to reading the new book (A Line Made by Walking) by this author. From reading reviews of her second book I can see certain themes that are of concern to Baume. Again the impact of loneliness, again the presence of urbanization or more specifically industrialization, since turbines, oil refineries and power plants although urban by nature are often sited in the worst places, in previous beauty spots, sustaining of one form of life, while despoiling another

Can happiness exist in a despoiled environment? Since the bible said the answer was ‘no’ with the fall of Eve, writers and artists have been grappling with the question well, what then since Eden is no more? Buddhism puts a more positive spin on this – the environment changes to reflect an inner change in man’s heart.



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