Glowing reviews from other bloggers brought this little book to my attention and in doing so, Peirene Press also which is a new independent publishing house whose mission is to bring gems of contemporary European fiction to monoglots like myself who can read only in English. The Peirene translation of Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide was my first, very positive experience of this publisher and now I have read all three that have been printed so far. All are short – around 100 pages or so. The brevity of these books is not the only thing that they share however. I have found that each novella is written with a certain intensity which leaves me feeling slightly bereft on turning the final page. In this regard, Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi was no exception.
In Beside the Sea, a single mother takes her two little boys for a holiday by the seaside. How delightful, yes? No. From the outset the mood is subdued. The bus journey is late at night and it is too dark outside to be able to see the countryside as they pass it. The mother is conscious that her children are the only ones creating a disturbance. When they reach the hotel, they climb laboriously up the stairs to the sixth floor, to find a sad little room with torn sheets and a shared bathroom. When they go to the supermarket and to a cafe, people are hostile. On top of that it rains, and rains and rains.
It is clear that something is not right and that the narrator (the boys’ mother) is unsettled. References to missed medication and social workers hint at this, and an obvious lack of money suggests a deprived background. The narrative voice is at times soft and contemplative, full of love for her children, and at others veers towards anger at the world. One heartbreaking scene in the book is when they go to get a bite to eat, and the mother goes to pay with the few coins that they have:
“The owner looked disgusted, he looked at the scattered money like he’d never seen anything so dirty…”
It is hard to tell if people are really cold and cruel or if the mother, only perceives this to be the case. The mother’s internal reaction to her older son Stan’s actions seem out of proportion to reality. When they go down to the beach Stan runs off ahead in his own little world, and when she catches up to him “something terrible happened”. The little boy hits her and runs away, leaving her feeling that a great chasm has come between them. Her language, while quite basic, is full of heavy-emotion and conveys a sense of desolation which permeates throughout the novel:
“I no longer existed. I had no voice left, no more words, nothing could reach him. I stopped shouting. Stan’s outsized clothes were moving all on their own in the wind, he reminded me of a boat. I didn’t know how to bring boats in.”
Beside the Sea, is a sad, sad novel. It is is also unique, moving and completely heart-stopping.
9 out of 10