Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
19 August, 2010
We get up in the morning but that morning doesn’t actually exist any more than the night before which everyone’s already forgotten. We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice, I’ve known that for a long time.
I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to like this book because of the strong responses it elicited online. Not because of the reviews themselves, but because I began to gather an inkling about the subject matter of the novel. It’s difficult not to give something away when you write about it, especially reviews. But I liked Stone in a Landslide a lot and when Meike of Peirene Press kindly offered me a copy of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, I couldn’t really resist. And you know what, I’m really glad I read this.
The subject matter is very controversial, but Olmi seamlessly segues you into her protagonist’s mind and you feel and think like her, slowly disintegrating, and only realising too late what is actually happening.
I was stunned and very touched upon finishing the novel. I closed the book and wanted to start reading it again, just to understand exactly what happened there. I wasn’t very sympathetic towards Olmi’s main character at first; a mother who takes her two young boys on a trip to the seaside on a school day. There is something a little askew with the mother. She’s worried and anxious but loves her boys to bits. And it’s difficult to understand her motivation. Yet Olmi, despite the likeability/dislikeability of her main character manages to make you care about what she does and how she feels. It’s uncomfortable reading but you can’t put the book down. And I’m still thinking about it two weeks later.
Beside the Sea is a very short novella, and I can’t really talk about it without giving spoilers, so I’ll refrain. But I do urge you to give this book a chance. It will make you stop and think about life, belonging and peace of mind. In our busy lives, something that makes us pause and take stock is certainly worth spending some time over.
This isn’t an easy book to read, but you’ll find that you won’t be able to stop reading because you just need to know where the story is hurtling towards. Just give yourself a little breathing space in between books, and some quiet time, to really take it in.
I think Peirene Press took a gamble in publishing such a devastating yet simple story from the point of view of a member of our society whose life has somehow slipped through the cracks. It’s not a subject many would reach out to, but I think Olmi has written a singularly beautiful novel. It’s not easy for us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and when we do, it reminds us of what we cherish in our lives.
Adriana Hunter’s translation read really well, but I’m still unsure as to whether I like the vernacular tone with its jarring and jerky rhythm mirroring the protagonist’s state of mind. But this added to the tension in the story, and it probably was the right tone to take. Translations always make me wonder what it would be like to read the book in the original language. If only!