By Sara Baume. Available on multiple platforms.
Beautifully written; disturbing to its core, especially disturbing that so young an author understands so deeply social isolation, loneliness and despair.
From Sara Baume’s Prologue: “He is running, running, running. And there’s no course or current to deter him. There’s no impulse from the root of his brain to the roof of his skull which says other than RUN. He is One Eye now. He is on his way.”
She is telling us about the rat terrier One Eye, but the inexorable rush to destiny also applies to the 57-year-old motherless child who casts his lot with One Eye.
Ray needed a rat terrier. He found One Eye but only after a badger found the dog first.
Why he needed the terrier is a complex question. He had rats, to be sure. Why he had rats is for the reader to discover. One Eye had no one. Ray had no one. Then they had each other.
“I summoned every last dot of valour I could scratch from my soul, I swallowed a shot glass of rescue remedy and went to the social welfare office. I filled out forms and ticked boxes. I found that continued survival came down to a simple matter of form-filling, a basic proficiency in the ticking of boxes. And because I managed never to miss a box or make an illiterate mark on the bottommost line instead of signing my name, nobody came. And here I am still, and here you are.”
“My father’s name was the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they’ve been water boarded by molten amber and stained for life.”
Our narrator is never explicitly named, but he is Ray. He speaks to One Eye (and sometimes, seemingly to us) and interacts only with the clerks at the post office and the grocers. He shows One Eye (and thereby us) the circumscribed world in which he lives. And I use “circumscribed” advisedly. He starts and ends his life in a small Irish village, with limited financial resources and no social support. He exhausted his savings account and could have collected rent, but that task, like so many others, seemed too overwhelming.
“For two years now, the hairdresser hasn’t paid a snip of rent, I’ve only just realised that. She used to post it through the letterbox on the first working day of every month in an envelope that smelled like sweet glue and hand cream. But for the last two years, not a snip. And why would she bother, when the landlord’s disappeared and there’s only his idiot son who won’t notice anyway? And I didn’t notice, did I? So maybe I’m everybody’s idiot after all.”
Baume peels away each prickly leaf of the whin, painfully, one at a time, as she reveals Ray’s secrets.
She also gives us a survey of the flora and fauna of the Irish sea coast – Bowerbirds, chamomile, furze, cuckoos, silverweed, nasturtiums, jackdaws and all manner of living things, flaunting their living as Ray tries to hang on. The alliteration abounds: the “grandiosity of grottos.” The multitude of Marys meets us around the bend. We smell what Ray smells: black mold, cigarette smoke, old slippers and, Baume tells us, time. Irony abounds. The ever-present radio tells Ray and One Eye about endangered species.
This is a remarkable book, not only for the gorgeous language which others have noted, but also for the unmistakably Irish fatalism and folk wisdom contained therein. “Tomorrow, once our slanted slates have collided with the course of the sun, we’ll come back here, I promise.”
The language brings to mind that wonderful Welsh Marches story by Peter Maughan, who also reveres the plants and animals of Batch Magna, “a place on a road to nowhere in particular,” but where the prose trips and trills over the tongue if one reads it aloud. Unlike The Cuckoos of Batch Magna, Baume’s book is not one for those who insist on happy endings. Ray says it best when he tells One Eye:
“This is the way people survive, by filling one hole at a time for the flightiest of temporary gratifications, over and over and over, until the season’s out and they die off anyway, wither back into the wall or path, into their dark crevasse. This is the way life’s eaten away, expended by the onerous effort of living itself.”