Review: Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

. . . its hard living up to a child’s hopes.  Right!  I said we’re going to buy some biscuits and a bottle of water, and we’re going to have a picnic down by the sea!  Its raining, Stan said, like it was my fault, and that was when I’d had enough.

This skilfully written novel, Beside the Sea, tells the story of a troubled single mother, who takes her two young sons for a visit to the seaside.  She describes the long bus journey through the rain to the unnamed coastal town, arriving at night, to book into a dismal hotel where she is assigned a tiny room on the sixth floor.  This is going to be no holiday, for despite the woman’s desire to give her boys a treat, shortage of money and a mother’s trouble mind dog their days, plus of course the unremitting rain.

I was quickly drawn in to this tragic tale, and finishing the book this morning, I found myself full of pity for this little family.  If only someone had noticed.  If only those men in the café had been more helpful.  If only the hotel owner had called social services.  But then no doubt they would have met with an uncomprehending response – they aren’t my patch, they’re just visiting, they’ll be all right.  Alas, they aren’t all right, and we privileged readers see all the clues, the references to social workers, the neglect of essentials . . .

. . .I hadn’t taken my medicine, but no one sat on me that night. I was like everyone else that night . . . I slept like I do during the day.

It takes money to organise a holiday, not a pitiful tea-tin containing loose change “scrimped from the change at the baker, and sometimes the supermarket”.  You really don’t want to take your children to an hotel where. . .

. . . there was a tiny night light on the counter, and everything was brown: the walls, the lino, the doors, it was an old-fashioned brown – the can’t have repainted the place for centuries, and it looked like years of dirt had stuck to the walls and floor.

Véronique Olmi describes every detail of this couple of days with painful precision.  The mother is trying so hard to make things work, but just doesn’t have the ability to do so.  They trudge through the rain to see the sea, but they find, “great waves stretching furiously . . . gathering high to reach us then falling back down”.

IMG_1056 The other side of La Manche

They find a café and meet hostility from the owner and his other customers who mutter about the children not being in school today.  What can a young mother do other than go back to the hotel and pull the sheets over her head?  Her boys play listlessly with coins and watch the raindrops falling down the window-pane, apparently well-accustomed to their mother’s withdrawals from the world.

When she eventually surfaces the mother provides a meal of chocolate biscuits and water for her boys and then takes them to a funfair, where again, little joy awaits.  Back at the hotel the heating is off, but at least the rain has stopped and the moon shines through the windows.  The story soon reaches its inevitable conclusion and left this reader at least thinking of all the families who struggle so hard against impossible odds and find only despair at the end of their journey.

In Beside the Sea, Véronique Olbi has perfectly captured the harshness of life where loneliness and poverty represent insuperable barriers to contentment.  The voice which narrates the tale is perfect.  We are not told the woman’s history, but its all there in her speech, the familiarity with bargain-basement life, the little flashes of humour emerging from a tormented subconscious, the maternal love for her boys, marred by too much struggle to keep her head above water.  The first person narration works perfectly and I was reminded of other author equally adept at depicting the outworking of a damaged psyche such as M J Hyland (This is How) or Neil Cross (Burial).

From time to time we see glimpses of a more equable personalty which show what might have been if life hadn’t dealt this young mother such a difficult hand, and it is impossible to feel judgemental about her – would we fare any better under such circumstances?  And its Véronique Olmi’s ability to seek out a sympathetic response in her readers which makes this book work – her readers are not just causal observers of this seaside holiday but find themselves longing for this intractable set of problems to be solved.

A final word about the translation – the book is translated by the hugely-skilled Adriana Hunter (who has many titles to her credit including that notorious book about Catherine M!),  who as always presents a work which makes her readers feel that they are reading in the original language.

The book is beautifully produced by Peirene Press, a new imprint “bringing the undertapped riches of contemporary European literature”.  The production values are extremely high – nice design of cover and content, substantial flaps on the cover and even a little themed bookmark is provided with the book.  Peirene Press evidently feel that despite the alleged rise of e-books there are still plenty of people out there who appreciate the tactile and visual elements of reading.

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