Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 121 pages; 2010. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
Véronique Olmi’s novel Beside the Sea has been a bestseller in its native France since publication in 2001. Thanks to a new London-based independent publishing house, Peirene Press, it has now been translated into English for the first time.
Peirene’s mission is to publish contemporary European literature in translation that is thought-provoking, well designed and short. Beside the Sea certainly ticks all those boxes — and then some.
The book opens with a single mother taking her two young boys, Stan, 9, and Kevin, 5, on their first visit to the sea. Immediately the reader realises that this is no ordinary trip — they leave on “the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us” — and this is no ordinary mother — “Yep, sometimes I sit in the kitchen for hours and I couldn’t give a stuff about anything”.
And even before they arrive at their unnamed destination things do not go according to plan: the boys play up on the bus (“talking loudly, peeing and blubbing”), and the mother, who narrates the story, is worried that other passengers are talking about them and that she will miss her stop. When they do arrive it gets worse: it’s raining, they get lost in the dark, and when they eventually find the hotel, it’s a severe disappointment:
Everything was brown: the walls, the lino, the doors, it was an old-fashioned brown – they can’t have repainted the place for centuries, and it looked like years of dirt had stuck to the walls and floor, it was like being inside a cardboard box, a shoebox actually.
This sets the pattern for what can only be described as a rather sad and squalid holiday, in which it becomes increasingly clear that the stark reality of the trip does not mesh with the mother’s expectations. Olmi plays her cards very close to her chest and drops the odd clue to the woman’s background without spelling anything out. We discover the woman has no teeth and “quite often I daren’t smile or laugh without putting my hand over my mouth” but we do not know how she lost them. Is a poor diet to blame? Perhaps domestic violence? A drug habit?
We know that she has mental health problems (“It’s not true that I’m paralyzed by my anxieties, like they say at the health centre”) and that she often takes to her bed to shut out the realities of her life. She’s also very poor and has paid for the trip using “all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker, and sometimes at the supermarket”, bringing her coppers long in a little tea-tin.
But it’s also apparent that she loves her boys very much and that the whole trip has been planned so that they can see the sea for once in their lives.
Notwithstanding the brevity of the book, it does not take long for an ominous sense of doom to rise off the page. Despite the mother’s best intentions “bad luck” has a habit of getting in the way and screwing everything up. It’s hard not to feel pity for her and even more pity for her boys. You wonder where it might end.
And then Olmi delivers her final shocking blow. To be perfectly honest, I had seen enough reviews of this book on other blogs to guess that something very bad was going to happen. However, I still found the ending so powerful, so intense and so quietly devastating that I’m still thinking about it a week down the line… By showing the extraordinary in the very ordinary, Olmni has crafted a fine novel indeed. Beside the Sea may not be a cheery read, but it’s a hugely emotional one that deserves the widest possible audience.