#NBCCLeonard Picks #9: Kerri Arsenault on Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither

by Kerri Arsenault | Oct-13-2016

In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The ninth in our series is NBCC board member Kerri Arsenault on Sara Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

A lonely, desolate man (Ray) adopts a lonely, desolate cur with one eye, which he names One Eye, and they live in the lonely, desolate landscape of Ireland’s coast in a murky house owned by Ray’s deceased father. But you shouldn’t feel forsaken by what appears to be a gloomy tale. You will love these broken lives, not just because because they are fallible (like us), or because they eventually become “creatures of possibility”, but because this is a story about what love can do.

Ray thinks: “…with summer comes hope, and with hope comes disappointment.” It is with this credo of paradox Baume approaches her narrative, her characters, the book’s themes, the point-of-view, all of which balance on the thin line between beauty and ugliness, possibility and routine, heartbreak and joy, man and man’s best friend until the seams of those concepts are pressed together like two sides of the same coin. In this constant capsizing of definitions, readers are forced to reinterpret their own boundaries of how to view the world and the people in it. One Eye’s violence toward people and animals feels both repulsive and understandable; shattered bottles become treasures; a happy birthday memory consists of a sad day at the zoo; and an invisible shiny spacesuit makes Ray feel dull. Baume’s language also crosses borders to forge new perceptions of things that can be clichéd: A man’s anger becomes a “cathedral of tea-candles” and “At night, the sheep look like walking headstones” or “the bay is fringed by a phlegm of dirty white weed.” Indeed, I’ll never look at sheep or headstones or tea-candles or the water’s edge in the same way.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is also an adventure wrapped up in a staycation, and those opposing narratives fit snugly into one another like a literary turducken. Ray and One Eye embark on an unplanned trip to escape their pasts and they don’t go terribly far in real distance; but the real journey is where Ray ventures beyond the confines he’s erected in his blinkered mind. “I realise it’s up to me to follow your example and nurture my own wonder, morsel by morsel,” (148) he says to One Eye. And we see those morsels as we listen to him talk to “you,” which at first is One Eye but eventually becomes you, the reader.

Don’t look for a happy ending. But when does that really happen anyway?

Kerri Arsenault serves on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle and is a founder of the Western Maine Water Alliance. She writes a column for Lit Hub, and her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Book Review, NBCC’s Critical Mass, and Bookslut. She is currently working on a book about Maine.





About the Critical Mass Blog

Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).

Subscribe

SIGN UP FOR CRITICAL NOTES





Categories & Archives

Become a Friend of the NBCC

Upcoming Events

NBCC at AWP18: March 09th, 2018

NBCC Finalists’ Reading: March 14th, 2018

NBCC Awards Ceremony and Reception: March 15th, 2018


NBCC Awards

Award Winners for 2016

See all award winners

Find out how to submit

Read how we select

Frequently Asked Questions


Videos and Podcasts

NBCC 2016 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2015 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2015 Finalists Reading

NBCC 2014 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2013 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2013 Finalists Reading

Video: New Literary Journals

Video: The VIDA Count and Gender Bias in Book Reviewing

Podcast: What Is Criticism? NBCC Winners and Finalists at AWP

All videos and podcasts.