“Beside the Sea” by Véronique Olmi

A mother takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it? There’s even a bucket and spade on the cover. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, hear the brass band playing a cheery tune. But this is not a nice little feel-good story about a trip to the sea. There’s no sunshine, no brass bands, no sandcastles and laugher and sticks of rock. To get an idea of what this book is like, imagine that idyllic seaside trip viewed through a fun-house mirror – everything’s distorted, everything’s wrong, the music is off-key, the sea is hostile, the rain is constant, danger and madness lurks everywhere. It’s a seaside trip you’d have in one of your darkest nightmares. It’s one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read.

Notice I said “bleak”, not depressing. I didn’t find the book at all depressing, although I can see how some people would. Personally I’ve always liked dark, so-called depressing stories. I remember that as a teenager one of my favourite songs was REM’s “Everybody Hurts”. My friends asked me why I liked a depressing song about everybody hurting and crying, and I was surprised – to me it was the opposite of depressing. It made me feel better to realise that everybody hurt, not just me.

With literature, some of my favourite books have been depressing – a lot of the Russian classics like Crime and Punishment, pretty much anything by Dostoevsky in fact. More recently I loved Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, again a pretty bleak read. My own first novel is not exactly cheery either. I think it’s partly the same impulse to feel other people’s pain so that my own life feels better in comparison – after the nightmare you do, after all, wake up. But it’s also because I’ve always looked to literature to enable me to access the full range of human experience, including the experiences I wouldn’t really want to have myself. If you’re like me, I think you’ll love this book. But I know that some people read to relax, or to cheer themselves up, or to escape into better worlds – if that sounds like you, then perhaps skip this one.

The entire book is the internal monologue of a depressed, anxiety-ridden mother. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the book. When I found out that Véronique Olmi is also a playwright, it made sense to me – the locations are very limited, and are sequenced almost like scenes from a play: the bus, the hotel room, the beach, the funfair. The surroundings also heighten the sense of being hemmed in – on the bus it’s dark and the countryside is invisible, so there’s no sense of motion or progress or a world beyond the bus; in the town they’re lost and confused; in the hotel room it’s either dark or raining all the time, so although the children are always looking out of the window there’s little sense of what’s out there. Each scene feels contained, like a stage with a painted backdrop and nothing beyond. It feels very deliberately done, and for me it worked very well in focusing the attention entirely on the characters and in building up a sense of unease and tension. What you can’t do in a play, of course, is have that inner monologue – everything has to spoken out loud. A novel lets you step inside the character’s head, and in this case it’s a very intense experience. It’s quite a short book, but still, by the end of it, being in the narrator’s head felt almost as unbearable for me as it clearly was for her.

Being an internal monologue of a despairing mother, the novel is written in everyday language, with no literary flourishes.  It also reflects the narrator’s disordered state of mind, as she jumps around from thought to thought within the same sentence. At first, the style really grated on me, with its long run-on sentences separated by commas:

There were a lot of people around us, unbelievable that there are so many people out there, specially so late, where are they all from, were they going to the same place as us, no way of knowing, they looked calm, lost in quiet thoughts.

Early on, I found this kind of thing so unbearable that I doubted I would finish the book, but at some point I suppose I just got used to it. I think that by the time the characters and the story had me hooked, I paid less attention to the writing. By the end, I felt that it was perfect for the story – there’s a lot of drama towards the end, and a spare, unadorned style works much better for that sort of thing than overwrought descriptions.

The mother’s sense of the world as a hostile and incomprehensible place is established beautifully and convincingly, through detail after detail after detail, dropped in gradually from the beginning to the end. On the bus, the other passengers all seem to know where they are going, while she has no idea:

The others, you could tell, all felt safe and sound, you’d have thought they made this trip every evening. There was me losing track of where we were or how long it was since we left, and they just got more and more patient, some of them even slept, hands on their stomachs, mouths open, they knew the journey better than anyone, I was so afraid of missing the stop that I got up again to ask the driver.

This idea – that everyone else is inexplicably at ease, while only she feels bewildered, recurs again and again, whether she’s describing other people in town or at the funfair, or other mothers outside the school gates. It’s reinforced by her odd sleep patterns, lying awake in the middle of the night and falling asleep in the middle of the day, so that she never knows what time it is, whether it’s morning or evening, and she’s always lost – both the hotel and the sea are discovered only by aimless wandering, trying to look as if she knows what she’s doing, and then accidentally coming upon them.

The hostility comes both from other people and the world in general. In the hotel, the staff never notice them, except for one time when the mother is having a severe anxiety attack and the hotel manager tries to calm her, and then extricates himself as quickly as he can. Mostly they are just ignored, the man behind the desk thrusting a key at them without taking his eyes off the football game on TV. They stop in a cafe, and the men drinking at the bar stare at them and then mock them for only having small change to pay with. At the funfair, someone knocks the younger boy’s chips out of his hand and makes him cry. The elements also are against them – the sea is rough, the rain is constant, the mud clings to them, the damp won’t leave their clothing. As perhaps the final mark of alienation from the world, the mother-narrator figure is not even named throughout the whole book.

I suppose the mark of a good book is that it affects you while you’re reading it and stays with you afterwards, and this one did both. It gave me a convincing insight into someone else’s life, someone very far from me but with whom I can still empathise. The ending was brilliant. It was the ending I had expected, which usually is a disappointment for me, but in this case it worked because of the excellent description and also the fact that I cared so much about the characters by then. I expected it, but even as it was happening I was wishing it wouldn’t. It made me cry, which is quite rare. I can see why the book was a literary bestseller in France and Germany – it deserves to be one in the English-speaking world too.

Finally a word about the book itself, as a physical object: it’s quite beautiful. Lovely, simple, elegant cover design, and the details inside are just excellent. It feels more expensively produced than a lot of paperbacks, with a sturdy cover, the kind of flaps you normally get on hardbacks, and quite heavy pages with generous amounts of white space – a real pleasure to read. It’s the first book produced by a new publishing company called Peirene Press, which aims to produce new English translations of contemporary European literature. In a world where the response of most English-speaking readers (myself included) to JMG Le Clézio winning the Nobel Prize was “Who?”, I think there’s clearly room for a lot more translations of contemporary European literature. Peirene Press is certainly off to a great start with this book, and I’ll be looking out for the next one.

Hi Lucy
The new job is taking longer than expected – they’re doing all kinds of background checks, so who knows what they’ve found! So unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to Mark’s launch. Hope you all have a good time!
All the best

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There are 5 comments

  1. This sounds bitterly honest and deeply relatable. I too find solace in stories that remind me that suffering is a universal burden, something that I need not carry alone. I will definitely be adding it to my list. 😉

  2. I read this and enjoyed it very much. I’ve made it April choice for Bloggers book of the month at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green.

    I enjoyed your review – you found things in the book which I missed. I enjoyed the descriptions of the coastal town, presumably in Normandy – I have visited many like that and even stayed in similar dingy hotels

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