I put my head against his neck, necks are the softest bits on a child

Beside the Sea, by Véronique Olmi

Beside the Sea has one of the most disquieting opening paragraphs I have read.

We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.

It’s a paragraph heavy with implication. Why is it important nobody sees the narrator and the boys? Why is the jam wasted? Why won’t it be useful the next day?

Beside the Sea was the first title published by Peirene Press, a new publishing house specialising in translated novellas. I previously wrote about their second release, Stone in a Landslide, here. I was impressed by Stone and enjoyed it but I didn’t love it. I’m even more impressed by Beside the Sea. I’m not sure I’d say I love it either, but then it’s not the sort of book designed to be loved. I do think it’s rather a triumph though.

Olmi here writes a story told entirely from the perspective of an unnamed mother of two boys, Stan and Kevin (the names are indicative of their low social class). It’s the mother’s reflections on her day out with her children – a schoolday spent not in school but at the seaside instead.

It quickly becomes apparent that it’s important to the mother that the boys enjoy their day out. It becomes just as quickly apparent that she’s made no real preparations for the trip.

The family arrive at night in pouring rain.. They check into an apparently deserted and run down hotel where they’re given a tiny room on a high floor and where there is no lift. The town the next morning is a sea of brown mud (reflecting the confusion miring the mother’s own mind) and ugly buildings. The mother has brought all their money, literally everything they have, and it’s not really enough to take the three of them out for a meal at a cafe.

Other issues soon become apparent. The mother has lost her front teeth at some point, how is unclear. She suffers from insomnia and terrible dreams at night, and so likes to sleep during the day whenever she can. Generally there’s a sense of a woman profoundly struggling to cope with life.

The effect of experiencing the whole story through the mother’s single voice is a cramped and claustrophobic one. Her world is one of grinding poverty and rationalisations. The only bright spot in it is the children. Stan, nine years old, is quiet, watchful and polite. Kevin, five, has yet to grow so guarded.

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.

The mother struggles with details like picking up Kevin after school. She even struggles with remembering to bring Kevin’s noonoo (his comforter) along with them to the seaside. Increasingly, Stan is becoming the real head of the household. That raises a question, for how much longer will they need her? How long will it be until they start just looking after themselves entirely? How long is it before that happens for any parent?

This is a book that’s been reviewed a lot on the blogosphere (I’ll link to a few at the bottom). Stu of the blog Winstonsdad refers in his review to a sense of foreboding. That’s precisely the right word. It’s common for parents to feel that their children are growing up too fast. It’s common for them to have distinctly mixed feelings about the day when their children no longer need them. For the mother though, the children are all she has and her desire to protect them soon seems worrying, unhealthy even.

It’s no spoiler to say the trip is not a successful one. It’s out of season. The weather is foul. The sheets in the hotel aren’t new. Nothing is as it should be. It’s clear that nothing ever really has been. The seaside trip is not an anomaly, it’s their lives as they always are but in a new location.

They go to a cafe with their few coins.

Kevin was worried, I don’t like coffee, what can I have? Whatever you like, I replied. A coke? he leapt up from the seat as he said it, he was happy and it was lovely seeing him like that, but still, I wasn’t going to spend all my money on coke, he’d still be complaining he was hungry afterwards.

By way of aside, there were few things I hated more as a child than being told I could have anything, but when I made my choice being refused it and guided to something more sensible. It makes the original offer a lie. Perhaps it’s time to forgive my father though, for not taking me on the roller coaster, it has been over three decades…

Ahem. Anyway. Things continue to go wrong. The cafe owner and the other customers are unfriendly. The shopkeepers are surly at being paid in assorted loose change. The mother is desperate for the boys to enjoy their day, but the whole world seems determined to deny her even that small comfort.

I referred earlier to a sense of foreboding. Reasons for concern come early. The boys get soaked arriving at the hotel and the mother worries that Kevin might catch cold, then chides herself at how stupid that thought is. At the cafe Kevin gets his coke after all and rubs his hand when it arrives:

He’s already imitating grown-ups, I thought, and I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother’s son, exactly when he became unrecognizable, I mean: just like the others.

Later the mother realises that Stan genuinely misses school. She finds this mystifying:

All day long with his teacher, how does that work? She bamboozles him for hours on end, telling him more and more stories! I can’t even get him to read through his homework, I don’t understand it at all, specially the maths, Forget it, he told me the other day when he realized I couldn’t go through his geometry with him, is it really all that important? Calculating the angles of things? That’s not how I see life, all flat on minutely squared paper, no more mysteries anywhere, school is the kingdom of numbers, even my kids measure them, write them down, gauge them, they compare their average with the class average, why not with the national average while they’re at it? That’s the problem: we bring babies into the world and the world adopts them. We’re the incubators, that’s all, then they get away from us and it’s not long before someone tells us we’re no longer in on the act.

For me, those last two quotes underline the heart of this book. The mother fears her children growing up as all mothers do. She fears becoming irrelevant. The boys are the only thing in her life for which she has responsibility. They are the only things in her life over which she has a measure of control. Each day, as they grow older, all that slips slowly away. Or so she fears.

The mother thinks that she wants to protect her children against the world. Really though she wants to protect herself from the pain of losing them. She wants to stop them leaving her world and joining the adult world which she finds so incomprehensible and which she is so unable to cope with.

Olmi’s achievement here is to take a person who is profoundly disturbed and to make them sympathetic. I could picture the mother’s arguments with social services, and her attempts to keep a family together when she can’t even keep herself together. I wanted her to receive the help she needed, or just to recognise that it was being offered (and it is obvious in the book, if you read between the lines, that help is offered however ineffectively).

It’s easy to sympathise with women trying their best even where there best isn’t very good. Olmi goes further though, because the mother isn’t just failing to manage. The mother is planning something horrific, and I’ve never read a book before where I had such a powerful sense of wanting to plead with a character to stop and reconsider.

This is an extraordinarily sad book. Olmi brought me into the mind of someone deranged by misery and their own inadequacy. I’m not sure I’m entirely grateful for that, but as I said at the opening it is rather a triumph.

Beside the Sea. As I commented above, a lot of bloggers have written this one up. William’s review at Just William’s Luck makes some excellent points and has a different emphasis to mine, and his quotes are very good. A Common Reader first alerted me to it, here. Kimbofo picks up on the way Olmi brings out empathy for the mother here. Andrew Blackman brings out the way events and the elements seem to conspire against the family here, and quite rightly talks too about how beautiful the book is as a physical object. That’s more reviews than I think I’ve ever linked to before, and yet there’s many more (and equally good) at Peirene’s blog reviews page for the book here. I’ve not seen a bad review yet.

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25 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Novellas, Olmi, Véronique

25 responses to “I put my head against his neck, necks are the softest bits on a child

  1. I do love your blog titles Max.

    This opening reminds me of MJ Hyland’s in This is how: “I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either.” It really sets you thinking…

    Anyhow, this book sounds like one I would like (albeit, it sounds, gut-wrenchingly). I’ve read a few of the blog reviews you’ve mentioned. I must try to get to this writer.

  2. I think I would like it too. It sounds poignant.

    “Stan and Kevin (the names are indicative of their low social class)” : absolutely. An Anglophone name for a French kind of means your parents picked it in American TV shows.

  3. Sam Jordison

    This sounds like a very good book that I will probably avoid… Since becoming a parent, I’ve found books about parenting going wrong near unendurable. Still, fascinating. And great review.

  4. Thanks WG, I do rather enjoy picking them.

    Sometimes it’s quite hard to find something short and apposite. Sometimes they just leap off the page. I’m reading a William Gibson short story collection (early 80s SF) at the moment and there’s a line at one point which goes: “It’s edge was bright as new chrome.” I’m lucky I’ve got a blog because that couldn’t be bettered as a title for that particular collection.

    Bookaround, thanks for that. I knew it was a class signifier as I asked Peirene on twitter if the names were original (they are, they wouldn’t change them which to be honest makes sense, I didn’t think they would). I didn’t know why they were a class signifier though.

    Sam, this is most definitely not a book for a new parent. I remember a mate of mine after he had his kid saying that before he could see stories on tv involving children being hurt or upset and be indifferent, now he ended up crying and avoided watching them. This nearly had me crying, I think it could be genuinely upsetting to a new parent.

    Which is an achievement for the author, but it does mean I’d be careful who I recommended it to.

  5. Looking back at my review, I didn’t name the translator. I normally try to make a point of doing so, and I’m disappointed with myself that I didn’t here.

    It’s Adriana Hunter. I can’t speak to how it compares to the French but this translation captures a wholly authentic voice using English class signifiers which make sense in the context and I was impressed by it. All the more reason I should have named her really. A translator to watch out for I suspect.

  6. WG,

    I love that Hyland quote. I see you’ve reviewed This is How here: http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/m-j-hyland-this-is-how/

    I’ll pop by to have a read as that’s intrigued me.

  7. In the car this morning, on my way to work, just before reading your review, I was thinking about names and how character names convey a image. And I was thinking that I missed this meaning when I read foreign literature and that I should give hints about it when I review French books.

    Some names were given at a particular time. In France, you can be almost sure a “Martine” was born in the 1950s and a “Stéphane” in the 1970s.
    Some are related to social classes : upper classes in France tend to give original highbrow names (like “Bérénice”) or really traditional ones (like “Louis”). Anglophone names are really linked to lower social classes, the worse is when the names chosen can hardly be pronounced in French. (Like “Kimberley” or “Brandon”).

  8. leroyhunter

    I’m not a “new” parent as such but I have 3 young kids, and Sam is spot on: it’s a very good book but it’s also nearly unendurable. It’s sad all the way through (and wet, and tired, and confused, and all the things Max has highlighted) but it ends up being quite horrifying. The last chapter (indeed, the last page) is one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time.

    Stepping back from that visceral part of my reaction to the book, I have to recognise the writing skill that has created this character and lead me through her mind to that conclusion. There’s not a false note anywhere and I found myself having a complex reaction to a narrator who can be helpless, selfish, well-meaning, desperate and confused by turn. I don’t think triumph is over-stating it.

    One thing that I’m interested in Max: you mention the mother’s fear of losing the boys, in the sense of them growing up, becoming adults and outisde her control. I think that’s true, but I also got a real sense of resentment at times, a desire to give into her situation and not have to take the responsibilities that being a parent creates. The way both those strands play out is ultimately perverse, in that the implications of either (protection vs rejection; love vs resentment) get mixed up and in some ways reversed. Even when the narrator comes to realise this, its still only in the context of her own damaged logic, but it’s still pretty shattering.

  9. leroyhunter

    PS very interesting comments on the names, bookaround.

    Like you Max I wondered if they’d been changed in translation, so a nice point to clear up with Peirene.

  10. I think your last paragraph is definitely right Leroy, there is a resentment. There’s a huge selfishness at the heart of this book, which is why although I was brought to sympathise with her it was only up to a point.

    As you say, she wants to give in. Sometimes she chooses to do so, even though the children clearly need attention and to be taken care of. She puts herself ahead of them.

    That’s part of what I was getting at though too. For her, although she loves the children ultimately it’s all about her. How they make her feel, how she resents the responsibility they represent and how she wants to keep them at the same time all for herself.

    As you say, it all gets mixed up. Even the few moments of seeming altruism here, the trip to the cafe or to the funfair, are really about her desire to see the boys have certain experiences. She doesn’t once give any serious thought to what their needs might be, just what she thinks their needs might be.

    Shattering, a good word for this one.

  11. Sounds more like an Ozon film than ever.
    BTW Max, Hyland’s How the Light Gets In was extraordinary.

  12. Guy, I thought of a movie when I read this review, I even checked if there were one. I saw Nathalie Baye in my head, but she may be too pretty.

    An Ozon film ? Is that because of “Sous le sable” ? I would have said a Dardenne or Bruno Dumont film, starring Yolande Moreau.

  13. Umm….could I ask why “Kevin” indicates lower social class? That has not been my experience.

    Although that dreadful book about having to talk about me might be a factor.

  14. Sorry Kevin, but it does in France. Here, only people having little education give Anglophone names to their children. Though “Kevin” is becoming so frequent now that you can hope it won’t convey that image in the future.

  15. I wondered about names ,then read a couple of french reviews and seen they were actual names ,thanks for the mention ,this is a wondefully powerful book in such a small space ,all the best stu

  16. Thanks for the mention Max. I really loved this book, still my favourite of Peirene’s first three titles. Like Leroy and many other readers I was really affected by the book as I read it, finding those final few pages almost impossible to read. I’m so glad to have been introduced to them as a publisher and am already looking forward to their new releases next year. Who can resist an Anthea Bell translation?!

  17. LaurencePritchard

    Great review Max, will definitely check this out. I can read French so will get the original. Heard good things about MJ Hyland too.

  18. Laurence,

    I’d be interested to hear how you find the original. I’ve printed off some old MJ Hyland reviews of Guy’s and WG’s and I expect I’ll be picking some up in due course.

    Stu and William, you’re both welcome. I’m always pleased actually to be able to link to other reviews, it gives readers an alternative perspective (well, less so here since we all agreed, but the principle still holds).

    And yes, I’m definitely looking forward to the Anthea Bell.

  19. I’m rather touched! But a practical question…do you have a good system for keeping track of reviews of books you wish to read? Do you print them and file them by author? I find that when I finally read a book that some bloggers have recommended I have the darnedest time remembering who. Sometimes a Google search will turn it up, sometimes my memory works, and other times I just give up. Maybe a little spreadsheet? But then, I’m starting to drown in spreadsheets!

  20. I have a system WG, but no, I don’t have a good one.

    I have a folder in my favourites titled Blog Recommendations. When I see something I want to consider buying later or something I may want to link to later (for example I’ve got Kevin’s review of The Jinx there for when I review it so I can easily link to it) I take the link from that folder.

    Which was fine for a while, but it’s grown swiftly and is becoming unmanageable. I probably need a better system, but I’m not quite sure what yet. Perhaps a googledoc with the links pasted in, that could work better and not be too high maintenance.

    A spreadsheet sounds like too much work, but I have to admit sometimes I miss links that would have been good to include because I just forget where I read something.

  21. Good idea. Just pasting links – alphabetically by title? or author? or both even? – into GoogleDocs might be a quick way to go. I like it! Would save the paper floating around wouldn’t it.

  22. I have a private page on my blog and that’s where I put the list of the books I’m interested in.
    That way, everything about literature is at the same place.

    If that can help…

  23. LaurencePritchard

    Max,

    Just finished this. It’s a very intense and moving book. Exactly the right length too, I didn’t think of it as a novella, or short novel, just a story told with enough detail. I think the way Olmi describes every moment adds to the tension. I knew something bad was going to happen at the end but i didn’t guess how it was going to happen exactly. The ending is very well done.

    I don’t know if the protagonist was unprepared, I thought that she really had no money at all. The scene in the café is heartbreaking, and the food they end up eating! Biscuits, chips that get knocked over. And the long grind up the stairs to the hotel.

    I think your review really documented how we feel sympathy for the mother. I also agree that there’s a social context, and that the mother doesn’t want to lose the kids, when they grow up, and move away from her. When i was reading I also found something recurring that had to do with the elements, particularly water: the endless rain, the mud, and them being soaked all the time, the sea, of course. There’s the moment when she’s calling for Stan, I think, on the beach and he can’t hear her above the sound of the elements. Then there’s this line: Voilà mes garçons, J’ai pensé, deux glaçons en train de fondre – that’s quite a remarkable image, that she sees her children as made of iced water, about to melt.

    I’ll definitely have a look at the others on the Periene list.

  24. Pingback: she did not want to worry | Pechorin’s Journal

  25. Brilliant isn’t it? I’m glad you liked it. The scene in the café is indeed heartbreaking.

    The elements are a definite motif, I should have brought that out more with hindsight. You’re absolutely right that imagery of water is central.

    Bookaround, I now have a Google doc which I paste links to of reviews of books I want to come back to.

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