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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Left Me Utterly Speechless, Both In Its Brilliance & Its Twists
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...
Published on 4 April 2010 by Simon Savidge Reads

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars Beside the Sea
Very difficult and depressing read. Even though I had an idea where this story would end it still left a bad taste in my mouth. 2.5
Published 9 months ago by Teresa Jewett


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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Left Me Utterly Speechless, Both In Its Brilliance & Its Twists, 4 April 2010
By 
Simon Savidge Reads "Simon" (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gritty realism which makes for a compelling read, 28 Feb 2010
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something had to happen there..., 11 July 2011
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Bleakly beautiful story of a mother's dangerous love for her children, 21 Mar 2010
This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heart Breaking, 21 April 2013
By 
M. Dowden (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but devastating, 8 Sep 2012
By 
Joanne Sheppard (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside The Sea (Kindle Edition)
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that challenges, and rewards, and challenges again, 8 Dec 2010
This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
I love this book so much I wrote a long piece about it for Pank Magazine [...] where I compared it with (the much lesser) We need To Talk About Kevin. Both books ask difficult questions about mother-child relations, but in refusing to give us any easy answers, Olmi's book not only retains its own integrity, but ensures that closing the back cover is only where it starts to affect us.

Peirene's principle is to bring readers amazing literature in translation, and in small packages that will take about as long to read as a film will to watch, meaning a reader can lose themselves in Beside the Sea for a couple of hours, and never have to put it down. Although they may feel they have to, because the book is unrelentingly intense, drawing the reader to its inevitable conclusion like a fisherman reeling us in.

This is a book that won't take long to read, but will stay with you for months afterwards, and will do what great books should do, ask yourself important and hard questions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'on the edge of a precipice', 10 Aug 2010
This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Saddest journey to the sea ever., 25 July 2010
By 
Ann Fairweather (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
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...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Just couldn't put it down!, 28 Mar 2010
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Ms. N. Sutton (Farnborough, Hampshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Beside the Sea (Paperback)
I started reading this book on my journey home from work one evening, never has a train ride gone so fast. I suddenly realised I was at my station, I had to decide quickly, do I get off the train and wait to finish Beside the Sea at home, or miss my stop and just carry on reading!!

The choice I made... I got off the train and straight into the nearest taxi, if the driver was talking to me I didn't hear him...

This book is gripping, you get to know each of the characters personally, you go through a mix of emotions, there's something at the back of your mind all the way through... something's going to happen... but you aren't sure what it is.

I have recommended Beside the Sea to all my friends, definitely worth missing your stop or paying for a taxi home!
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Beside the Sea
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (Paperback - 13 Jan 2010)
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