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.