Beside the Sea (Bord de Mer) is Véronique Olmi’s debut novel. First published in France in 2001, it went on to become a bestseller across Europe. This was the first book published by Peirene Press and it was a brave choice for a publisher that has now become synonymous with producing quality work in translation.
A young mother has taken her two sons – five-year-old Kevin and nine-year-old Stan – out of school for a trip to the seaside. From the outset, it is clear to the reader that this is no ordinary trip; filled as it is with a sense of foreboding, desperation and the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen.
We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.
Nothing feels right and nothing seems to go right. The bus trip is fraught, the hotel drab and the weather awful. Everything disappoints. The mother has a tin of loose change and it is clear that there is only enough money to last a few days. She appears desperate that her children see the sea, but given the wind and rain, even that turns into disappointment. A trip to a fairground ends in tears and confusion.
As the novella progresses we learn a few details about the mother. She is on medication and spends most of her time in bed, and allows mothering duties to fall to Stan, the eldest boy. There is a social worker involved in her life and despite her obvious love for her sons, she appears unable to cope psychologically with daily life and finds the most mundane of tasks overwhelming. Olmi also holds back on detail. Why this trip and why now? Where are the boys’ father or the mothers’ family? By omitting details of the bigger picture, Olmi creates a focused and almost claustrophobic picture of a mind in freefall.
It is to Olmi’s credit that she makes her protagonist so sympathetic. The first person narrative voice is simple and direct, the mother’s words believable even when her actions are abhorrent. The expert translation by Adriana Hunter stays true to that narrative voice, capturing in vivid detail the poverty of both the mother’s literal and intellectual life. Depicting mental imbalance is, in itself, a balancing act and Olmi vitally explores how the mother’s sense of growing isolation and her wish to protect her children from the vagaries of the world have brought about a tragic chain of events..
Beside the Sea is an incredibly difficult book to read, but is a mesmerising and intensely moving depiction of a fractured mind. The short time-span gives the book a tense immediacy and the final pages are incredibly heartbreaking in their inevitability. There is a moment, close to the end of the book, when the mother uses her eldest son’s full name – Stanley – for the first time and it is like a jolt to the reader, emphasising the horror of what is happening.
I would hesitate to recommend Beside the Sea, only because it is such a devastatingly honest portrait of a painfully familiar situation. Yet it is an important and admirable book that explores an undocumented side of motherhood and reminds us of the need to try to understand what drives people to commit what we think of as the most heinous of acts.
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