on 4 April 2010
I cant start my bookish thoughts on `Beside the Sea' without stating that it is one of the most intense reads that I have had the fortune (though maybe that's not quite the right word) of reading recently. It starts as the simple tale of a single mother taking her children on a holiday to see the sea for the first time only as the book develops much darker undertones start to slowly seep out of the narrative and you realise this isn't going to be quite the picturesque read that you thought it might be.
To give away very much about this books storyline would be to spoil this book for the reader. I will try not to let the cat out of the bag when I describe what an amazing tension Olmi creates in this novel through the narration. The nameless young mother describes to the reader her trip away and as the tale goes on from the coach ride to hotel arrival, café treats to first sightings of the sea you are given small glimpses that something isn't quite right. Health centres, social workers, Sundays in bed all day and medication start to be mentioned and the further you read on the more you get that gut feeling all is not well and something darker is coming.
One of the quotes from the book mentions that though not a thriller this book does read as one and that's a very true statement. I can't think of many books where the atmosphere and intensity of the novel come off the page so instantly and leave you to read on even if you aren't sure you want to.
I know there are some people out there who think that if you don't have children then you can't relate to tales about mother's (or father's) feelings for their child or children. I think that's a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that's the wonder of books. Olmi is just such a writer who put me into the mind of a mother thinking of her and her children's lives and left me rather an emotional wreck and not any books can leave me almost feeling physically winded.
This skilfully written novel, Beside the Sea, tells the story of a troubled single mother, who takes her two young sons for a visit to the seaside. She describes the long bus journey through the rain to the unnamed coastal town, arriving at night, to book into a dismal hotel where she is assigned tiny room on the sixth floor. This is going to be no holiday, for despite the woman's desire to give her boys a treat, shortage of money and a mother's trouble mind dog their days, plus of course the unremitting rain.
I was quickly drawn in to this tragic tale, and finishing the book this morning, i found myself full of pity for this little family. If only someone had noticed. If only those men in the café had been more helpful. If only the hotel owner had called social services. But then no doubt they would have met with an uncomprehending response - they aren't my patch, they're just visiting, they'll be all right. Alas, they aren't all right, and we privileged readers see all the clues, the references to social workers, the neglect of essentials . . .
. . .I hadn't taken my medicine, but no one sat on me that night. I was like everyone else that night . . . I slept like I do during the day.
It takes money to organise a holiday, not a pitiful tea-tin containing loose change "scrimped from the change at the baker, and sometimes the supermarket". Véronique Olmi describes every detail of this couple of days with painful precision. The mother is trying so hard to make things work, but just doesn't have the ability. They trudge through the rain to see the sea, but they find, "great waves stretching furiously . . . gathering high to reach us then falling back down".
They find a café and meet hostility from the owner and his other customers who mutter about the children not being in school today. What can a young mother do other than go back to the hotel and pull the sheets over her head? Her boys play listlessly with coins and watch the raindrops falling down the window-pane, apparently accustomed to their mother's withdrawals from the world. The story soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and left this reader at least thinking of all the families who struggle so hard against impossible odds and find only despair at the end of their journey.
In Beside the Sea, Véronique Olbi has perfectly captured the harshness of life where loneliness and poverty represent insuperable barriers to contentment. The voice which narrates the tale is perfect. We are not told the woman's history, but its all there in her speech, the familiarity with bargain-basement life, the little flashes of humour emerging from a tormented subconscious, the maternal love for her boys, marred by too much struggle keep her head above water. The first person narration works perfectly and I was reminded of other author equally adept at depicting the outworking of a damaged psyche such as M J Hyland This is How or Neil Cross Always the Sun.
From time to time we see glimpses of a more equable personalty which show what might have been if life hadn't dealt this young mother such a difficult hand, and it is impossible to feel judgemental about her - would we fare any better under such circumstances? And it Véronique Olmi's ability to seek out a sympathetic response in her readers which makes this book work - her readers are not just causal observers of this seaside holiday but find themselves longing for this intractable set of problems to be solved.
Beside the Sea is a very worthwhile read and a book to be recommended to anyone who likes fictional realism in large doses.
This is a literally stunning narrative. It rings so true and is so close to the bone of life's terrors that one reads on with a sense of dread. The unnamed narrator, the mother, is taking her two boys, Stan and Kevin, to the seaside for a holiday, she's packed their sports-bags, though she can't carry anything because of a recent dislocation of her shoulder. The reader is forced to piece together the background to this story from such clues. Is she fleeing some kind of attack? No father is mentioned, the children never mention one but the mother seems to have a history of medication, all of which she has left behind for this trip to the sea. Quite early, I would say from the initial bus journey and arrival at the seaside, in this very short (111pp) novella, that one senses a growing darkness around the future for these vulnerable children and their increasingly vulnerable mother.
The writing is superbly natural throughout, with the two boys given distinct personalities. Stan, the elder boy is around nine - he is watchful, careful with his mother, but there is a moment on the beach where, looking back, one senses his estrangement, when something of his mother's desperation is given expression by this child. Kevin is the needy one, the baby, five or six years-old, forced, perhaps to behave badly, or younger than he is, in order to gain attention.
The mother has very little money with her, and that in small denominations, which causes her problems with a café proprietor. The mood of the novel is set by the constant rain, the muddy beach, the hot greasy chips, which are all she can afford for the children to eat. She never eats herself, however, spending everything on the boys, the last of their meagre collection of coins on rides at the funfair, and then they walk back to their hotel. There is a final scene. This is one of the darkest and most devastating books I have ever read.
Beside The Sea took me barely more than hour to read - it's only about 120 pages long - and I do think this intense, claustrophobic novella is best read in one sitting. Written by French author Veronique Olmi, the story takes place over 24 hours in the lives of an unnamed mother and her two boys, Stan and Kevin, beginning with her taking them to the seaside on an overnight bus, having suddenly decided that it's essential they see the sea for the first time.
If, like me, you find the opening ten minutes of Casualty almost impossible to watch without wanting to intervene to stop the inevitable accidents, or have to put your hands over your eyes at CCTV footage of someone recklessly running across a railway line or edging along the outside of a motorway bridge, you will find Beside The Sea a deeply unsettling and stressful read. It becomes almost immediately apparent that the narrator is at best inadvertently neglectful of her children and at worst, severely unstable, and it's almost impossible to read her story without wanting to protect the children from her; at the same time, it's also impossible not feel deeply sorry for her.
Endless anxiety and cruelly severe depression torture her daily and, by association, her sons. Aged nine and five, they're left standing outside the school gates until 6pm, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and frequently unfed; their mother's self-confessed inability to stick to any kind of routine means they fend for themselves while she sleeps for whole days at a time. Stan, the elder boy, frequently finds himself cast in the role of carer for his mother and his little brother as the family struggle desperately to cope. And yet, despite her erratic parenting, despite her infuriating, disturbing state of denial about certain aspects of her neglect, it's obvious the narrator loves her children, wants something better for them, wants to provide for them - and understands them, too. In fact, her love for the children is the one constant in her life, and strangely, it's this that makes the book all the more disturbing as the story comes to an end.
We're told very little about the narrator's past, except that the children have different fathers and the younger boy's doesn't know his son exists, yet tiny hints (a reference to her missing front teeth; a passing comment that implies she has lived with someone who constantly belittled her) suggest that she may have been a victim of domestic abuse. Is this what has tipped a vulnerable woman over the edge? What was she like before she had her children? Those questions are simply never answered, and I think that perhaps the book is all the better for that: while the narrator's problems are clearly a long way beyond those of most mothers, every parent has moments like hers. Every parent doubts their ability to care for their child; every parent feels guilty, inadequate, over-defensive in the face of other's judgements. What makes this narrative so powerful is knowing this, knowing that even the best of parents can find themselves at the precipice of becoming unable to cope, and wondering how easy it might be to slide over the edge.
This short read is expertly translated by Adriana Hunter, retaining a vivid narrative voice for the protagonist, as fractured and dislocated as her state of mind. In fact I absolutely felt like I was reading the words of a real person rather than a fictional character, and in many ways, this was one of the things that made Beside The Sea a tough read. I have no children, and I'm not sure I could have got through this book if I did. In short, brilliant but devastating.
on 10 August 2010
There are people out there who want to shout from the rooftops about literature in translation and a few weeks ago I recommended this novella from new publishing outfit Peirene Press. Peirene was a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring, from whence the poets of Corinth drank to receive inspiration. Metamorphosis is a fitting emblem for a publisher dedicated to bringing translated literature to an English audience and Peirene's motto - "Bored watching films? For a fascinating night in: Sink into a two-hour book!" - makes clear that these are all books of less than 200 pages (Beside The Sea is just 120 pages), novellas to be enjoyed in a single sitting instead of watching the latest monstrosity from the Cowell empire. The first of these is a tale of a mother who decides to take her two sons, Stan - nine and Kevin - five, to the seaside. I mentioned in my review of Room that it was this book that had pointed up to me the big weaknesses of Emma Donoghue's much hyped, Booker longlisted novel. The fact is that in a far shorter work Olmi writes completely convincingly about someone alienated from the world they live in and about a mother's desire to protect her children from harm, two of Room's major themes. She does this with a simple narrative voice, without a grand concept and the book is all the more effective for it, with the final few pages delivering a dénouement that hits you right in the solar plexus and left me just a little devastated.
After my complaints about the narrative voice employed in Room I should say that I had similar fears at the beginning of this novella. The simplicity of the sentences, their short length, the fact that they were often reporting simply the chain of events, I was concerned that this was going to be a case of flat prose occasionally enlivened by incident or turn of phrase. But the style, conveyed brilliantly in an excellent, fluid translation from Adriana Hunter, is perfectly suited to this mother who it transpires is on psychiatric medication and struggling to cope with even basic tasks.
'In the morning I don't have the strength to get up to go to school, it's Stan who takes Kevin, and I think the littl'un likes it. With Stan I'm never late, he told me once. Schools open too early. Ten o'clock would be good. I can't do anything before ten o'clock. I don't sleep well at night. It's the worrying. I couldn't tell you what about. It's like something's been lowered onto me... like someone sitting on me, that's it. No one even notices I'm here. They sit down on me like sitting on a bench. I'd like to get up, stand up, thrash and scream. Nothing doing. They keep on sitting there. How can anyone understand that?'
The language remains simple throughout and the sentences run into each other with very little punctuation to separate speech for example, all of which helps to give a sense of her mental illness and adds to the rhythm of inevitability. There is a desperation to this journey, she wants so much from it and also feels the need to protect her children from what they encounter whether that be a shabby hotel room, the mockery and hostility of other people, or even the very thing she has brought them to see.
'The sea had lost all its colour, it wasn't blue at all, it looked like a torrent of mud, it was the same colour as the sky, what I mean is even the beach was like the hotel: same feeling of being in a cardboard box. It's completely blue, really, I told Kevin, but it was making such a row he didn't hear me - maybe I didn't actually say it, maybe I was talking to myself, It's breathing very loud! Kevin shouted, tugging at my arm. Don't be scared I said, it's just saying how glad it is to see you, it's really missed you! Does it know me? The whole world knows you, Kevin, that's what I wanted to say, the whole world's waiting for you, but that was wrong, I know there's no one waiting for us. But aren't we allowed to lie every now and then, to turn ourselves into fairies, children expect it and it gives them a chance to dream, what's wrong with that?'
That need to protect is incredibly powerful - 'maybe it's an animal thing, it's stronger than us', and it is that that gives the tale its tragic quality. Not only has she invested so much of herself in this trip but with her collection of centimes it seems that this is a journey heading in only one direction. Her embarrassment and shame at having let down her children in the past and the way in which this trip fails to atone for that in any way actually help us to sympathise with a character who, even as we read, takes appalling care of her children. How does the book manage not to be a completely depressing read? Well, that's the trick, I suppose. Olmi's characterisation of her mother figure, the stoic and time-worn reactions of her children and the vast effort to make things work, to be normal and happy are a few of the aspects that help. Another major factor, and the one that I found lacking in Room, is that it uses its protagonist and their view onto the world to illuminate our understanding of it. It isn't about grand revelations but small observations and that they come from someone on the margins, or indeed excluded from normal society makes them all the more relevant to the reader. We could quite easily be one of the people to glance sideways at this harassed looking mother, passing judgement as she pays for her drinks with small change from her pocket.
'It wasn't so nice after all in that cafe, and I couldn't wait to get out. I can't seem to stay in the same place for long, there's always something that upsets me or makes me sick. Usually people make me sick. I wish they could be more like kids: with more questions than answers, but it's often the other way round, where did they learn to be so sure of everything?'
Olmi so successfully gets us into the mind of this mother that we feel sympathy where others show disgust and even manage to maintain it as the story moves towards its horrifying conclusion. I really can't recommend it highly enough, or commend Peirene Press for not only making it available in English for the first time (despite being published to great acclaim in France as long ago as 2001) but for making such a finely produced edition. French flaps, quality paper and elegant design make this a book with as much to admire on the outside as within. I look forward to reading the other books in their catalogue (and to the publication next year of a work translated by Anthea Bell).
This is a difficult one. While I want to give this short novel five stars for the quality of its writing and for the sheer gripping power of its narrative, it is also a book I would find difficult to recommend to anyone. I dont know Veronique Olmi, but I hope she's ok. Because her book would rank very high in a list of the most depressing books ever written. Bleak, thankless, utterly negative, there isn't a glimpse of redemption in the story. Talking about it with a friend she said : 'but what do you get of reading such a book ?'. Good question. I think you get an unique and very genuine insight into a depressive mind. The 'heroine' seems also to have been depressive before she had children as she remarks that it did not improve after she had her first one. I could not help but think all along, while not even knowing the terrifying ending, that depression and children definitely dont go together and that in some way, this book powerfully illustrates that she should never have had children in the first place...Obviously not the point of it, but a thought that cant help spring to mind. In any case this is a strong, difficult subject, made incredibly ultra-real by either a very skilful writer or a woman who has been close to her subject...
First published in France in 2001, Veronique Olmi's debut novel is powerful reading. From the blurb on the back cover you can easily see what is going to happen, but that doesn't detract from the actual story, as it soon becomes obvious anyway.
Narrated by a single mother with two boys we soon can see that she is mentally ill, and to some extent the eldest boy (only nine years old) is her carer. Taking the boys to the seaside in term time she is intent on giving them a treat, but with very limited funds it isn't that easy. As we read that she hasn't been taking her medication we know what the tragic outcome will be.
This is only a short novel but it is elegantly written drawing you in to the story. A beautiful piece of literature this really makes you feel the frustrations and your emotions are brought to boiling point at the heart breaking climax. As this is narrated by the mother we are given no lecturing here, thus making this a more powerful piece of writing. A tale where too much love by some people can be dangerous, this is something that will haunt you long after you have finished it.
on 7 September 2010
In the hurry to become independent adults, children often forget that while their actions are, for them, additive, they often strike their parents as a loss. A baby soon becomes a toddler, and then a child, and then a teenager, and then an adult, and then they experience the cycle for themselves. But a parent doesn't stop being a parent, and each phase, as it slips away, is forever lost and always remembered. Véronique Olmi's Beside the Sea is a novel of motherhood, though not as it is described in the ordinary sense. Olmi takes, as her subject, the possessive and suffocating aspects of a mother's love, and examines the consequence of the terrifying logic that can afflict a sickened mind.
The narrator of Beside the Sea is a deeply introverted, deeply depressed woman who works hard for very little money, and cares for her two children, nine-year-old Stan and five-year-old Kevin, by herself. Her life is a constant battle of worry and effort, one she can't cope with, and one we suspect she hasn't been able to handle for quite some time. The narrator thinks,
"I don't sleep well at night. It's the worrying. I couldn't tell you what about. It's like something's been lowered onto me..."
She takes her two sons to the sea. It's the middle of the week, which means they are missing school. This worries Stan who, at nine, has become one of those unfortunate young children who care more for their sick parent than their parent cares for them. He has assumed many of the duties normally performed by a parent, and the narrator recognises this, and pities her son, but she can't muster up the energy to do anything about it.
"Wait till tomorrow when he sees the sea! I thought. I couldn't see how that - the sea - could disappoint us, it's the same everywhere for everyone and I was perfectly capable of taking my kids to see it, thank you very much, I could travel at night, it's not true that I'm paralyzed by my anxieties, like they say at the health centre."
The 'health centre' is mentioned often, and so too is the fact that the mother is missing teeth, and sleeps too much, and is generally unhealthy. We suspect that life has knocked her about rather too much, but she confesses at one stage that she has no memories, nothing - just a few, here and there, of her children. But nothing of her own childhood, and little of her immediate past. Something dark has happened - probably - but what we, and the narrator, don't know.
Beside the Sea is written in simple language and is almost confessional in its outpouring. The narrator is the 'I' to some 'you', though we don't know to whom. The boys' father? But we learn that Kevin's father is a random plumber of no meaning to the narrator, and we know nothing of Stan's (though it is implied they have different fathers). A health worker? She has nothing but complaints about them, for daring to consider she has problems. Who, then? We don't know - but perhaps herself, an extended justification for her life and behaviour.
"The talking started all on its own in my head, I hate that, thinking is a nasty piece of work. Sometimes I'd rather be a dog, you can be dogs never wonder what their place in life is or who they should follow, they just sniff the air and it's all recorded, in there for ever. And they stick to it. Humans don't have a sense of smell, that's what's dangerous. I'd like to be able to sniff around me and for everything to be clear, with just one meaning and no messing around."
She is clearly uncomfortable with being alive and the responsibilities this requires. She loves her children, but she's utterly dependent upon them. Stan provides material support by cleaning and caring, while Kevin gives emotional support through unconditional love. But she notices that Kevin is growing older and separating from his mother, becoming more of an individual. And Stan, well - at nine, his eventual abandonment of the family home doesn't seem all that far away. They depend on her because she's their mother, but she depends on them for everything, because they provide purpose in her life. But this obligation has festered into resentment and exhaustion, and the cracks in the narrator's mind threaten to becoming chasms into which anything can fall, and from which anything can happen. But oh, she does love these boys:
"Mum! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that's a wonderful thing! The way a littl'un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he'd given up on."
Near the end of the novel, after the visit to the sea, which ends poorly, and after a visit to a cafe, which is even worse; after they go to the fair, a dazzling display of colour and sound that overwhelm the boys and almost paralyzes the mother, after all of that, our narrator is close to breaking. And she knows it.
"I ran to the bathroom and I stuck my head under the cold tap, to save myself. It was freezing. It hurt. It got inside my skull, I was being pulled by my hair, pulled towards the ceiling, my whole back was trapped in the ice, I was in pain, real pain, the explainable, logical sort, I was in brilliant white light, I was nowhere, in fact. I'd stopped falling. I got up. I woke up. I was breathing heavily from fighting the cold water, I'd made up my mind to win, to suffer for as long as possible, it felt terrible and wonderful at the same time, looking the enemy in the face at last, knowing exactly what's hurting, and emerging dazed, breathless, worn out. I was whimpering, the struggle was almost over, I was a solid mass of pain, it was coming to an end."
She can't handle any more the life she has been inflicted with, and something must come to a head. We all know what it is - Olmi has scattered hints and more than hints throughout the novel - but nonetheless the final twenty pages are a tour de force of narrative intensity and emotional complexity. The narrator remembers her children as they were when they were younger, and even more dependent on her than they are now - and regrets that they are no longer like that. She thinks that the best time they ever had together was when they were together, that is, when each child was tucked safely away in her womb. Everything after that was a disappointment, because they inexorably and too rapidly slipped away from her, and became their own people. She reasons that this must not be allowed to occur, and then her actions become very frightening indeed.
Beside the Sea is a spectacular book, one that succeeds astonishingly well in the task Olmi has set herself. It is emphatically a novel about motherhood and the difficulties associated with the mother-child bond, one that chooses to explore the darker, less popularly conceived notions of child raising. The final pages, for all that they were foreshadowed throughout the entire book, caused a quickening of my heart in a manner which I have only experienced during my own, personal, emotional situations, which is to say it touched me to the quick in a way I did not expect and for which I am profoundly grateful. A success on every level, and a magnificent novel for Peirene Press to select as their first published work.
A single mother takes her two young children to the seaside for the first time. Sounds nice doesn't it, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's a budget outing - they arrive late at night on the coach in a dark little town where it's raining cats and dogs. The hotel is sleazy; they're given a grotty room on the top floor and there's no lift. So, they try to make the best of a bad thing. The threesome do go onto the beach, but it's still bad weather; they go to a café for hot chocolate, but the clientele aren't friendly at all; then later they go to the funfair, and the boys go on the dodgems until they're sick.
Narrated by the mother, we feel for her plight straight away. It's obvious she's virtually penniless and there's no mention of her children's father. We discover she has no front teeth, and would normally be medicated - she is in a bad place mentally, but one thing shines through - she does love her boys.
In a way, I was thankful that this novel is short. It's so intense and bleak, building up the portrait of this damaged woman who lives for her boys, and you sense that there are more shocks to come. I won't say more. The translation excellently captures the mother's voice, and you really feel sympathy for the mother and her sons.
The boys are called Kevin and Stan - I understand that English names are in vogue in France nowadays, but it did make the setting feel more like a run-down British seaside town rather than a French one. However, that aside, it was an extremely thought-provoking and uncomfortable read that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
on 21 March 2010
A mother takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside. Sounds nice, doesn't it? But this is not a nice little feel-good story about a trip to the sea. There's no sunshine, no brass bands, no sandcastles and laugher and sticks of rock. It's a seaside trip you'd have in one of your darkest nightmares. It's one of the bleakest books I've ever read.
Notice I said "bleak", not depressing. I didn't find the book at all depressing, although I can see how some people would. Personally I've always liked dark, so-called depressing stories. I think it's partly the impulse to feel other people's pain so that my own life feels better in comparison - after the nightmare you do, after all, wake up. But it's also because I've always looked to literature to enable me to access the full range of human experience, including the experiences I wouldn't really want to have myself. If you're like me, I think you'll love this book. But I know that some people read to relax, or to cheer themselves up, or to escape into better worlds - if that sounds like you, then perhaps skip this one.
The entire book is the internal monologue of a depressed, anxiety-ridden mother. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the book. The novel is written in everyday language, with no literary flourishes. It also reflects the narrator's disordered state of mind, as she jumps around from thought to thought within the same sentence. At first, the style really grated on me, with its long run-on sentences separated by commas, but at some point I suppose I just got used to it. I think that by the time the characters and the story had me hooked, I paid less attention to the writing. By the end, I felt that it was perfect for the story - there's a lot of drama towards the end, and a spare, unadorned style works much better for that sort of thing than overwrought descriptions.
I suppose the mark of a good book is that it affects you while you're reading it and stays with you afterwards, and this one did both. It gave me a convincing insight into someone else's life, someone very far from me but with whom I can still empathise. The ending was brilliant. It was the ending I had expected, which usually is a disappointment for me, but in this case it worked because of the excellent description and also the fact that I cared so much about the characters by then. I expected it, but even as it was happening I was wishing it wouldn't. It made me cry, which is quite rare. I can see why the book was a literary bestseller in France and Germany - it deserves to be one in the English-speaking world too.