Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What an extraordinary novel. It's about a man, now sixty-ish, who has lived all his life in his father's house--which he continues to call it even after the old man is dead--in a little seaside village. It becomes clear after a while, as the narrator relates it all to his dog, that the father had been mad as a hatter, and completely unfit to raise a child. He wasn't sent to school. He was largely ignored, and left alone sometimes all night. He was even kicked out of the car and left by the roadside to be finally brought home by a passing motorist. The result of all this is that the narrator, whose name is never revealed that I can recall, is a very odd duck who feels set apart from the rest of humanity. "I am horrible."
As the novel opens, he is looking for a dog to be a ratter, as he has an infestation in his attic. He adopts a ragged beast from the local shelter, an escaped badger-baiting dog with just one eye. (A badger took the other with its claws.) He naturally names him One Eye, but the people at the shelter print the tag all one word ONEEYE. The narrator tells the dog he is named after an African prince. It becomes clear, as the man chatters endlessly to the dog, that the man has a fine eye for nature, and quite remarkable powers of observation about people as well. If Quasimodo possessed a dash of Walt Whitman, then he would be this narrator. He has never had a any pet other than a hamster before, but man and dog fall into a wonderful companionship together. Both are terribly wounded. Both fear people. But they love, and comfort and help, each other.
Not since Richard Adams' "The Plague Dogs" --he is also the author of the celebrated "Watership Down"--have I read a novel in which a dog is brought so absolutely, genuinely to life. One Eye does all the things dogs do, and the author has obviously spent a lot of time living in their company because her depiction is spot on, including all the things dog owners know but never think about. One Eye is, above all, an animal, intent on smells, food, life; he is often gross and always enchanting. The most enchanted one is his broken, aging, endlessly sad owner, for whom this shelter dog becomes a reason for living. The way the man always thinks of One Eye's comfort is touching. He isn't always the perfect dog owner--it's a learning curve--but he comes to understand more about his dog than most people ever do.
When One Eye, who was bred and trained to go fearlessly down burrows after badgers and kill them, attacks a dog out on a walk on the beach, he and his man have to go on the run. To avoid the animal control officer, they live for months in the man's car, driving to out of the way places and keeping to themselves. It is amazing to me that a story about a troll-man and a wounded dog who live first in a filthy house and then in a car could be so absolutely absorbing and make me wonder what would happen next as much as any conventional thriller. Throw in some utterly unique revelations from the man's past, and two unremarkable lives become positively gripping. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that, while compulsively describing everything to his dog, the narrator reveals the heart of a poet. An unsentimental, keen-eyed one at that. Very very highly recommended.
View all my reviews