Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Translated by Adriana Hunter)

Beside the Sea book cover‘I like songs. They say things I can’t seem to say. If I didn’t have these rotten teeth I’d sing a lot more, a lot more often, I’d sing my boys to sleep in the evenings, tales of sailors and magical beds, but there you are, we can’t be good at everything, we can’t know how to do everything, all of it, that’s what I tell the social worker till I’m blue in the face.’

I read Beside the Sea on the recommendation of three fellow book bloggers, Farmlanebooks, Savidge Reads, and DoveGreyReader, each of whose reviews contained a phrase along the lines of ‘I’ve never read anything quite like this before.’ How could I resist such a tantalising prospect?

Beside the Sea is the story of a single mother who takes her two sons on their first trip to the seaside. Life hasn’t been easy on them and she is determined to give them one perfect weekend while they are still young. Stan is eight or nine and his younger brother, Kevin, five. The tale is narrated in the first person by their mother as a sort of stream of consciousness monologue; we follow the them as they check-in to a dreary hotel, stop for hot chocolate at a café, and visit the funfair. But as we read on the full extent of the mother’s situation starts to become clear, holes appear in her narrative, and darker intentions become worryingly possible.

At just 100 pages, this novella carries the tense emotional resonance of a thriller, utterly sucking the reader into the events on the page and bringing the lives of its protagonists uncomfortably to life. It is one of those books that you have to read in a single sitting – there is too much uncertainty to be able to walk away once you have read the first page. And yet like a child hiding behind a sofa from a scary movie, I had to put it down and send a tweet every five or ten pages just to break that tension. Beside the Sea gets to you. It gets inside you like few books ever will.

My wife and I applied to adopt a child last year. As part of that process, we learned a lot about the circumstances from which adopted children come, and this personal context made the book even more significant for me. For anyone seeking to understand the life of a child before being taken into care, this is a must read. The mother is flawed but sympathetically drawn, the children so vulnerable you just want to reach in and protect them. One of the most heartbreaking characteristics is the way that Stan parents his mother, remaining strong for her despite his young years, even while being somehow distant at the same time. He ‘acted grown up but slept like a child with no legs, like he was still afraid and didn’t want to take up too much room and get himself noticed.’

One of the things I love most about reading is that it is an act of empathy: that through stories we inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. The value of this cannot be underestimated. Our ability to understand each other and to look beyond our own surroundings in doing so is one of the core aspects of humanity. Beside the Sea is marketed as being about how ‘a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay’, yet that should not put male readers off. Great writing can bring any character to life (metaphorically), and that is certainly the case here. This book lets me experience, even at a distance, the mother’s life and I understand that a little better from having read it. For that, I’m grateful.

‘We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice, I’ve known that for a long time. One step forward, one step in the void. Over and over again. Going where? No one knows. No one gives a stuff.’

The experience of poverty on the fringes of a developed society is not something one reads about in fiction often, yet is brilliantly explored here. Sensually this is an uncomfortable book to read. The characters are always hungry, cold, wet, or worrying about whether they will have enough money, and this grey world of limited horizons seeps into the prose. The sea is angry and crashing, the lights from the funfair hallucinatory bright.

The mother’s voice is strong and convincing, if unreliable in its content. Because we see Kevin and Stan only through the distorting view of their mother, her tangled thinking both illuminates and hides everything that is going on. She often mentions the holes in her memory and this creates a situation where the reader is unsure whether anything about this past tense narrative can be trusted.

Adriana Hunter does a magnificent job of creating a colloquial, flowing sort of speech-like narrative. The translation is masterfully composed and invisible. This is a story that could be set anywhere and although it is translated from the French, English readers will have to pinch themselves to believe that this seaside they visit isn’t Skegness, Great Yarmouth, or Bognor Regis in winter.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in recent years is that some of the works in translation I’ve enjoyed most have been those that a translator discovered, fell in love with, and took to a publisher saying ‘this has to published’. That was the case with Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon, and is the case here too. Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea) was a French literary bestseller on publication in 2001, and so taken with the story was Adriana Hunter that she translated it unpaid, convinced that readers would love it as she had. However, it took nearly a decade before Perirene Press took it on, and she was proved correct.

Peirene Press was formed in 2010 to bring great European novellas to English language readers. They create a themed reading experience, curating three books a year that can be purchased as a subscription, or individually in bookshops. Beside the Sea was their first book, and has been followed by ten others. I’ve read four, and though none quite matches the emotional battering of Beside the Sea they have each been worth a read. I would particularly recommend The Murder of Halland (an deconstructed crime novel) and The Mussel Feast (a family drama that explores how cracks in tyranny can start to appear). It is publishers like Peirene, who are at the forefront of much that excites me in literature at the moment; I cannot recommend subscribing enough.

Beside the Sea is bleak yet riveting. It moved me as few books ever have. Most readers I’ve spoken to have been similarly effected. Be brave: it depicts life at its harshest but is writing at its most affecting.

6 comments on “Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Translated by Adriana Hunter)

  1. farmlanebooks
    June 5, 2013

    It is great to see that you found this as powerful as I did. I recently read another book that had the same emotional impact: The Son by Michel Rostain. It is also French and catches you with its bleakness. If you enjoyed Beside the Sea I think you’d appreciate it too.

  2. SamRuddock
    June 5, 2013

    Thanks for the recommendation! I already have it on the to-read pile and longlist for next year’s Summer Reads!

  3. rosyb
    June 5, 2013

    I’ve read this and Kirsty has and I think that Simon Thomas has too. Kirsty reviewed it a few years ago here and there’s some interesting discussion on that thread. :http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/beside-the-sea-by-veronique-olmi/ I was interested to see how your take would be. I should have posted this link into the piece

  4. Jackie
    June 5, 2013

    This book would be too much for me to handle, as it reminds me a lot of my own childhood, the mother sounds a lot like my own.
    I am impressed, Sam, that you have the empathy to apply it to your adoption process, to give you & your wife an insight into the possible backgrounds of children you might encounter. That is quite commendable. And I hope that you two are eventually successful in adding to your family.

  5. Pingback: Summer Reads 2013 – Beside the Sea | a discount ticket to everywhere

  6. Pingback: Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi | Rafferty's Rules

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Archive

Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.

Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 969 other followers

    %d bloggers like this: