Beside the Sea
by Véronique Olmi
translated from French by Adriana Hunter
This was the first book published by small publisher Peirene Press and since I began blogging I have been hearing how wonderful this book is, so earlier this year I bought it. But the thing is that the premise of the book is so dark, so sad, that it took me a while to pick it up and to be honest even though I think it brilliant I am not sure I would ever want to put myself through it again.
The story is that of a single mother who takes her two boys to the seaside for a holiday she has planned and dreamed of for a long long time, but she is poor and suffers from depression so nothing is as she had hoped. And to add to the bleakness she has a plan to protect her boys from the world at the end of this holiday, a plan that is not explained but is nevertheless clear from page one.
“It felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown plane, specially as it wasn’t the holidays and that’s what the boys kept thinking, I know they did. We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.”
I found this book extremely disturbing. Olmi does an amazing job of bringing to life a mother juggling money troubles and hunger and some form of depression, getting right inside her mind, which is not a comfortable place to be. Her four and eight year old sons are more au fait with the world than she is, and she feels this keenly. She has such a disturbed view of world, full of paranoia and fear, that she frequently hides from it all by trying to sleep, and her sons are familiar with this and accept it, even when they’ve skipped multiple meals and promise after promise has been broken.
“Lights mingled with the sound system, becoming as depressing as the songs, you couldn’t see the rain but it was following us all…the bells wouldn’t stop ringing, people were hurrying onto rides in every direction, where did all that money come from, everyone could afford everything, there was too much of everything everywhere, too much noise, too much rain, too many lights, all reeling past me.”
Olmi’s real skill is to show that this mother, struggling and under suspicion of social services and indeed most people they meet, truly loves her children and is trying as hard as she humanly can to do what’s right by them, it just isn’t enough. It’s unbearably sad. Doubly so as it’s so clear where this is going but you’re willing it not to go there, to find a way out.
“I was a furious pinpoint, with darkness all around, I was a star, old and always there, old and full of fire. I’d been thrown up into the sky, I wasn’t holding on to anything but everything around me hung on, like I was cradled by arms.”
I was left in a black mood for a couple of days after reading this book. I salute Olmi’s skill and achievement but I really do not want to enter that world again.
Bord de mer published 2001 by Actes Sud.
Translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.
Source: Bought direct from the publisher.
Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.