First published in France as Bord de Mer in 2001 – translated from French by Adriana Hunter.
If you are at all active on booky social media – then I imagine you are likely to be aware of Peirenne Press, their stylishly designed paperbacks of European literature, with subscriptions available.
I think I must be pretty late to the Peirenne Press party, with so many people reading them – and so many excellent reviews of Peirenne novels, it really was only a matter of time I suppose before I tried one. I was in Waterstone’s buying a gift and doing some browsing, when my eye fell upon Beside the Sea, and I remembered it as a book I had seen reviewed and talked about. It was only after I got it home I realised I had accidently bought the very first Peirenne book. If you hop on over the Peirenne website you will see that their books (all slim works of translated European literature) are divided up into 3 book series’. Beside the Sea is the first book in the Female Voice Series (naturally each novel also stands alone). A naughty little demon book collector in me began to whisper bad things as I browsed the website more fully – but I am attempting to ignore it.
Beside the Sea, is a very difficult book to review. Once read it becomes unforgettable, although I suspect most readers, will see exactly where they are headed from the first page, as I did. The reader is conscious of a creeping dread of inevitability as the story of a mother and her two young sons gets underway. Be warned, this is a harrowing narrative, and not one to be read if you are already feeling down, but there is real artistry I think in the way Olmi draws us into the mind of her narrator. I also suspect that it will be a book that the reader gains more from with subsequent reads.
“We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day”
A single mother takes her two young sons Stan aged nine and Kevin; five, on a trip to the seaside. She wants it to be perfect, the sun to shine, and the boys to experience the simple pleasure of the beach. She crams their clothes into bags and the family board a bus. When they arrive at their destination it is raining. The hotel is a drab, mean place, their room on the sixth floor is dominated by a bed which the door opens right into, it is certainly not like the hotels seen on television.
Narrated by the mother, in a stream of consciousness (not a style I always like, but it is absolutely perfect here), we are gradually made aware that she is suffering from some unspecified mental illness, for which she is supposed to be taking medication. Her world is a place of anxieties; she is desperate to protect her beloved sons from the cold harshness of the world. The realities of home for her include the watchfulness of social workers, a clinic and lone parenthood, the vague feeling she is not as other mothers, who all know how to do things just right. There is an intensity to the narration; it becomes hard to lay the book aside, despite, or maybe because of the feeling of claustrophobic unease.
The day after their arrival, Stan and Kevin’s mother shows them the sea, the waves are huge and threatening, it is still raining, and they retreat to a café and drink hot chocolate paying with a large pile of small coins. Later there is a visit to a fun fair. Throughout, the mother watches her boys, reflecting on their already established personalities, those little ways that no doubt, a mother knows best of all.
“I stopped on the sea wall, my two kids holding my hands, I wondered how to do it, how to say hello to the sea. It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered. I stayed there, not moving a muscle, watching it…I’d been waiting for it such a long time!”
This little novel does make for quite uncomfortable reading, and in a way I’m a little surprised it was chosen as the first title for Peirene, it was certainly a brave choice. I have no doubt I will be reading more from Peirene, though (despite my whoops moment the other day) I really am not supposed to be buying books just at the moment.