spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume

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Kim of Reading Matters made a list of eight great novels using the second person point of view. Who could resist that list? I was drawn to the title of this one when I realized these four seemingly random words capture the seasons. And I was ready for a low key book and this one seemed to be about a lonely man and his connection to a one-eyed dog. Ray does speak in the second person to his dog and Ray who never was given love comes to love the dog and they even share a road trip.  But there is no sentimentality here, you always know beyond the sadness there is a greater darkness looming.

SPOILER ALERT! I can’t write about this book without revealing that darkness, so be forewarned.

The second person point of view in this book means Ray occasionally addresses One Eye directly and asks him questions; telling the story of his life and their time together is for us. Born in 1954,┬áRay is 57 and lives in the house where he grew up with his father near the sea in Ireland. His care was negligent and worse; he never attended school, but somehow learned to read. After his father died, he learned to fill out forms so that he could receive money for support. One Eye came into Ray’s life when he saw a picture of his face (One Eye had tangled with a badger) and Ray goes to the dog shelter. Their time together begins in spring, or as the first section is titled, Spill, and ends with Wither.

Here’s a nice indication of Ray’s connection to One Eye:

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.

Because One Eye is quite fierce, they only walk on the beach early in the morning when Ray can let him off the leash. After the second time One Eye chomps down on someone’s pet, Ray knows he will be taken back to the shelter or worse. His response is to pack the car and they take off on their road trip. Eventually Ray begins to run short of money and food and the car begins to fail. They return to his house and we learn the extent of Ray’s lack of normal connection to the world. When his father choked on his breakfast, Ray chose to let him die. Then things turn quite gruesome and I’ll just say that we learn that Ray decided to get a dog to rid the house of rats. So, no, this isn’t a pleasant Man-Who-Learns-About-Love-By-Having-A-Dog-Story. While Ray is appealing in his ability to observe the natural world about him, occasionally other humans, and One Eye, he is hopelessly cut off from the world.

Several aspects of this book make it irresistible, the first being the wonderful language as evidenced by the title. We are drawn to the road trip that involves surviving on as little as possible. And Ray does come to love One Eye and makes sacrifices for this other being.

In the end things get pretty murky, but it seems that Ray, knowing his freedom is coming to an end, frees One Eye to be on his own, then ends his own life. Perhaps it’s churlish of me to be disconcerted by the mechanics, but how is it that a story we are just overhearing along with One Eye lives on its own without an omniscient narrator?

Sara Baume, spill simmer falter wither, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, (US edition), 274 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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