Tuesday 2 March 2010

Beside the Sea

Continuing in the books-in-translation theme, but moving to the other side of the Channel, step forward Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi. Yet again, imagine the accents. This novel, published as Bord de Mer in 2001, has been translated by Adriana Hunter and is one of the first books from new publishing house Peirene Press.

Let's talk about Peirene first, for a moment, actually. They translate and publish contemporary European novels, giving those of us with zero language skills a chance to experience the best of continental literature (n.b. for American readers, British people rather oddly refer to 'Europe' as though we weren't part of it. That's the ego of an island, that is). Best of all, for me - they don't publish anything over 200pp. Oh, Peirene, how I do love thee! It is not just yours truly who likes his books short and sweet. Their line is: bored watching films? Read a two-hour book instead. (Oh, and see their rather witty blog too).

But Beside the Sea, though short, is not sweet. That is to say, it's a pretty devastating read. From the beautiful cover, lovely thick pages, and generally pretty luxurious feel to the physical book, I was expecting the novel inside to be equally elegant. The written version of Audrey Tautou or Marion Cotillard, wearing a beret, sipping from a champagne flute and eating vol-au-vents. That sort of thing. So when the protagonist said that she 'didn't give a stuff' on one of the first pages, I was a little taken aback. So she's not elegant; this is not an elegant book. Ok.

Instead, we have a mother taking her young boys, Stan and Kevin, away to a grotty hotel by the sea. It's not lived up to her expectations, but she is determined that they will enjoy their stay - even with hardly any money, and rain, and fears continually crowding into her mind. Throughout all the activities, her main worry is that she isn't good enough as a mother, and that her children will outgrow her and leave her behind. She loves Stan and Kevin desperately, and tries to show this affection, but never feels that she is getting it quite right:
Maybe the only real cuddle is in your tummy, when you've still got the baby in your tummy, I mean. No one to tell you what to do, to say you're pampering it too much or not enough or not at the right time. You mustn't wake a baby. You mustn't ruin his appetite. You mustn't hurt his head. You're just with him. That's all. You're with him.

For their parts, Kevin and Stan try to cope well with the situation, but everything is a little fraught, detached, anxious. Stan takes refuge in words...
Are they good? I asked Stan. He didn't answer. He's gone off somewhere, he's good at that, Stan, slipping his moorings - oh, he's mine alright. The teacher lends him books and it's the same when he reads: he leaves us. Sometimes I think he carries on reading his books when he's given them back, he still thinks about them, he can read them even without the words, he's really very good at being somewhere else.
I was initially thrown by the tone of the novel, being so different from what I expected - and I did worry that it would be like so many other novels, in a 'real' voice which is so jarring and unsatisfying. But Olmi is much cleverer than that - though the reader might think at the start that this is an average mother, it is soon obvious that she is not. Unreliable narrators always make for interesting reading, and this one gives away only so much - and how much of that is true or reasonable is difficult to gauge...

Olmi manages to build tension without explaining much - the novel is haunting and continually advancing towards an unknown climax. The writing also gets better and better as the novel progresses - I loved the section where they visited the fair:

I'm taking you to the fair, I said. My voice was wrong, I didn't want to say it like that, in a whisper, I'd like to have said it all loud and happy, the kids didn't react. I took a deep breath and tried to shout, I'm taking you to the fair! but it came out faded and tired... the boys didn't move. Mind you, I'd have sworn they'd have followed me to the ends of the earth, but I realised the three of us didn't need to talk to each other any more. We could do things. Anything. The weirdest, craziest things. But without talking. We followed each other instinctively. We were sure of ourselves, like animals who never question, who just know what you should do and what you shouldn't.
But far and away the best writing comes in the final ten pages. The climax has arrived and, though perhaps the reader has predicted it, that doesn't make its arrival any less affective. Like Susan Hill's The Beacon, it's one of those gasp-out-loud-stare-at-for-five-minutes final pages, final lines.

Obviously I'm not a mother, and I think being a parent might make Beside the Sea even more arresting - but, though it was not the novel I expected when I turned the first page, this is a very good portrayal of quiet desperation and irrationality in a dark, dismal, but real world which never crosses the line into the gratuitously macabre or seedy. Peirenne Press are obviously a publishing house to keep an eye on...


  1. Thanks you for your review, Simon. It sounds quite an interesting if harrowing read... I was picturing a very grey Dunkerque visit as I read your review :-)I had never heard of this publisher before and their blog is quite a giggle. As you say, one to watch.

  2. Sounds fascinating! Will have to await copies in Oxfordshire libraries - currently on order (unless you might lend it to me for a couple of days?!). I love books set by the sea.

  3. I am intrigued; definitely a book and publishing house to look out for.

  4. I got a copy of this but havent quite gotten round to reading it, maybe over the weekend as I do want to see this book and publiher do well.

  5. This post made me chuckle! You are a wit AND a great reviewer, can't wait to read this!

  6. Simon - I received a copy of this and will read it soon you have made it sound fascinating


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