Sara Baume won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award for her brilliant piece Solesearcher1, so hopes for her debut novel have been high. Published by Tramp Press, the new independent Irish publishing house, Spill Simmer Falter Wither arrives at a time when Irish fiction is in good health. Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride, Paul Lynch, Audrey Magee and others have deserved their remarkable successes and significantly raised the bar.
Baume’s narrator is 57, an outsider without friends, ties or fealties. “I am not the kind of person who is able to do things,” he tells us, rioting in ironic understatement. He is often unlikable and always pessimistic, but there are the weird moments when you find yourself cheering him on, agreeing with him or, most strangely, loving him.
Alone by choice, he kills time walking or reading. His thoughts molest him like wasps. A novel he mentions fleetingly is George Eliot's Silas Marner. Baume's choice of her narrator's reading material is surely significant. Fans of 19th-century fiction will recall that Marner, a misanthropic recluse, regains his moral self when he fosters an abandoned child. Something similar happens to Baume's protagonist. His only meaningful relationship, if that's not putting things too strongly, is with the ugly, one-eyed dog he rescues from the pound to which it was consigned after being attacked by a badger. All this has the makings of a firework display of sentimentality, but Baume creates from such risky materials a tour de force.
The mutilated dog becomes a projection of the narrator’s desires, losses and thwarted longings, a transcendence of the self into a realm of radical identification. No writer since JM Coetzee or Cormac McCarthy has written about an animal with such intensity. Baume’s alchemy is utterly persuasive.
Other aspects of the natural surroundings – plants, insects, birds, the sea – are conjured with the measured tenderness of a man who doesn’t realise he’s in love with the world. These parts of the book are wrenchingly moving. Kurt Vonnegut said, “One plausible mission of the artist is to make people feel glad to be alive, at least a little bit.” Remarkable that, in the glum and downbeat voice of her narrator, Baume pulls this off.
Among her many gifts is an exquisite sense of place. The country is never named, but we know where we are. “Here’s a thatched and ruined cottage, a couple of slime-walled farmhouses . . . Here come the featureless bungalows, each with a couple of garden ornaments distributed about their neatly trimmed lawns. Squirrels, gnomes, wild cats, wishing wells, nymphs. Here’s one with a stone eagle atop either gatepost, painted an inauspicious shade of peach and turned in to face one another across the cattle grid. Now here’s an electronic gate with a keypad mounted to a post. At the far end of the extensive driveway, see the unfinished palace.”
Baume is not one of those storytellers who supply the entire picture. She drops clues and leaves gaps. You deduce that the narrator’s name is Ray, that his late father was Robin. The action begins in coastal east Co Cork, perhaps near the oil refinery at Whitegate, before narrator and dog are forced by local misunderstanding or mishap to take to the road as fugitives. Ray includes his phone number in the novel, but I was afraid to ring it. Baume writes him so persuasively that I felt he would answer.
So confident is this extraordinary debut that the reader doesn’t notice how much of it is narrated in the second person. The “you” intensifies a tone of great intimacy and tact. It’s impossible to write about a “you” without revealing whole reservoirs about the “I”, one of fiction’s loveliest paradoxes.
Then there is the exhilarating strangeness of the book. Repeated phrases pepper the text like a clutch of mini mantras. We’re given images of “performing” a summer or a meal. Odd usages draw you into the texture of the prose. Baume has written of her admiration for the work of Lydia Davis. Those traces are here, but Baume’s skill is all her own.
Power with language
What elevates the book beyond the category of promising first novel is the author’s astonishing power with language. This is a novel bursting with brio, braggadocio and bite. Again and again it wows you with its ambition, its implication, the more forceful for never being italicised, that simple words from our frail and brittle English language, placed quietly in order, with assiduous care, can do almost anything at all.
There are no easy tricks, no strainings for effect. This is a gimmick-free novel of truthfulness, uncorrupted by a yearning for praise. At its heart is a touching and inspiriting sense of empathy, that rarest but most human of traits. Boundaries melt, other hearts become knowable. This is the work of the highest artistic seriousness. It doesn’t try to impress but invites you on a journey, stirring deeper, more lasting recognitions.
Quibbles? For sure. The book is not perfect. That's one of its attractions. This is fiction with friction, jaggedness, juice. The Becketty title is a worry, because it begs to be misremembered. A dead father plays a big part in the story, but literalists may wonder why nobody in this gossipy little town seems to notice his disappearance. Formally, the novel is elegant and austerely beautiful, organised into a quartet of carefully balanced sequences, but one decision irked this reviewer. When Moses came down the mountain he carried an eleventh commandment intended only for novelists. It read: "Thou shalt not include a dream sequence." We get five of these in the first 51 pages of Spill Simmer Falter Wither. That's four and a half too many. But I don't care.
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting debut novel being published this year. Baume proves that the real can still be the province of literature, the only art form to which we can turn, heart in our hands, for an uplifting, consoling and dizzying reminder that language is the most sacred thing we’ve made.
This book is a stunning and wonderful achievement by a writer touched by greatness. It is the most powerful debut novel I have read in several years. I don’t want to jinx it by saying which major literary prizes it deserves; suffice to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about this novel and its maker in the future. An outstanding new Irish novelist published by an outstanding new publishing house? It could be very much worse.
Joseph O'Connor is McCourt professor at the University of Limerick, where he teaches the MA in creative writing. His novel The Thrill of It All is published by Vintage in April