Peirene Press Readathon, No. 5: 'Next World Novella' by Matthias Politycki

Today we are looking at book no. 4 in the Peirene Press series, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, which is the first of the 'Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy' series and post no. 5 of mine and Sam's epic Peirene Press Readathon; post no. 4 was a discussion post covering the 3 books of the 'Female Voices: Inner Realities' series.   

For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other.

Next World Novella is about Hinrich Schepp, an ageing university Sinologist, and his wife Doro, who he finds dead at her desk at the very beginning of the book, having died in the act of editing some of his writing. He doesn't call an ambulance - clearly the moment for that has passed - and is surprised to find that she had been editing a forgotten fiction manuscript of his that he'd deemed to be a failure, so he'd never shown it to his wife. The story progresses therefore with her dead in the room beside him whilst he reads her comments on his semi-autobiographical manuscript and realises that in many ways both his wife and marriage were really not as they seemed. The story works as a story within a story, as excerpts of Hinrich's manuscript are inserted into the narrative so the reader can draw their own conclusions about Hinrich's rather pathetic mid-life crisis, whilst also reading Doro's increasingly harsh and damning comments upon it, which reveal that she knew much more of what was going on than Hinrich suspected. 

Never have a read a book where a dead character holds the story in such a choke-hold, or has so much to contribute: though dead, Doro is presented as a fascinating, beautiful, aristocratic woman who feared being alone in death so much that she married Hinrich, a promising but ultimately mediocre academic, abandoning her own burgeoning academic career in favour of raising their children and editing his papers. It is made clear that their channels of communication dwindled over the course of their marriage to the extent that Hinrich, re-enamoured with life after mid-aged laser eye surgery, spends his night drinking and mooning over a waitress without realising the effect that this is having on both his marriage or his wife. The fact that Doro is lying dead, first at the desk, then rearranged on the chaise longue, whilst he realises this lends a macabre, slightly comical air to the story, although I felt full-on nauseated when a fly crawls out of her nostril, and I could happily live my life without reading about the details of livor and rigor mortis ever again, thank you very much.

I enjoyed the tone of this book - it is wry, ironic and slightly mystical - and thought a lot was added by the Chinese elements that quietly illuminate parts of the story. The Sinology department described tallies closely with my memory of four years studying in an East Asian Studies department, so there was an extra smile for me there too. The set-up was also very original, decaying bodies and all, and the book moved along at a good rate, with some great twists and turns. The characterisation is also great: Hinrich is utterly pathetic next to Doro's vengeful, circling anger, and both are very well-drawn.

I wasn't so sure about the motif of the lake that one must cross when one dies though, based on Arnold Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead and presented as Doro's feared vision of the afterlife and also one of her main motivations for companionship: I found it hard to believe that she'd marry a man like Hinrich Schepp just for the peace of mind that they'd wait for each other in death, so neither one would have to cross the lake, where one experiences a second death, alone. I thought as an academic she'd been more inquiring about her fears, rather than coming to one slightly out-there conclusion. Also, I wasn't keen on the big twist at the end; I found it undermined the main elements of the story in an unnecessary and, frankly, slightly bewildering way, which also felt a bit dated.

So, this is a good read with an unusual and well-thought-out set-up and tone, but for me the novella was let down by several of the plot points. Never will I allow flower stems to go fusty in a vase again though, that's for sure!

Previous Peirene post readathon links:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Sam's)

Title: Next World Novella
Author: Matthias Politycki, translated from the German by Anthea Bell 
Date: Original version 2009, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 138 pages and I was sent it by Peirene Press as part of this readathon series.


Peirene Press Readathon, No.4: 'Female Voices' Discussion Post

Today's post is of a different kind: Sam and I are continuing our epic Peirene readathon but rather than reviewing the next in the series, we are going to discuss the three books that have just been, which comprise the 'Female Voice' series; these are Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (see the bottom of the page for our review links).  

For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other. 
L: Hi Sam, how are you? Let's start by reiterating our favourites and why that is...

S: So,  although I enjoyed all three, my favourite was Beyond the Sea. I think books touch us the most when there is something we can relate to and I've met many mothers a bit like the mother from the story, who are well meaning but finding it hard to cope with life. I often deal as a teacher with the children of parents like this - children who never have the correct school uniform, turn up late for school, don't read with their parents etc. so I found it really powerful to read from the mother's point of view. I think I can guess your favourite, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman? And I'm guessing your reasons are similar to mine?

L: Yep, you're right, and yes, my reasons are very similar - empathy and personal experience! I won't go into it again as I talked at length about it in my actual review post, but, like the protagonist, I have been somewhat abandoned in a foreign country, knowing very few people and not speaking the language, whilst my husband has been off at war, and so every word of Margarethe's story rang a small, sad, nostalgic bell within my mind, and I understand the way in which she is fooling herself, and why. I also really enjoyed all three, and although I preferred Beside the Sea to Stone in a Landslide upon immediate reading, it's actually Stone in a Landslide that's stayed with me and that I remember most fondly, so I suppose that would be my second favourite!

It's interesting though, although perhaps not wholly surprising, to note that that our favourites were the ones that tallied most with our own personal experience; do you think that would be so much the case if these were male voices/characters, rather than female?

S: I'm hoping I will have the same connection with the male characters in the next series of books. Many of the female voices focused on motherhood, which I have no experience of, but I could still relate to the characters. I don't know if I will find the male voices as powerful as the female ones, but I'm hoping to see something of the universal human experience in them.

L: Mmm, I agree. Looking at it objectively, if the writing is of the highest quality, the universal human experience element you talk of should allow us to bond as closely with the male voices as the female, but I think we'd both acknowledge that this is not always the case when reading cross-gender, and also that the actual content and narrative of the novellas will also play a big part in that. Good writing and characterisation that central to making a reader bond to a character though, and I don't doubt we'll have that!

Looking at these three books as a group, how representative do you think these stories are of women (!) and of stories written by and about women as a whole?

S: I don't think any series of three books could represent women! Also, the three women were all in extreme circumstances (mental health difficulties and war), which makes them not representative of women in thankfully more ordinary situations. But there were a lot of themes that will resonate with women and humanity as a whole - love, loss, tragedy etc. I think it would have been nice to have one female voice that wasn't about being a mother (Conxa's story was the closest to this), as often women are reduced to mothers and there is so much more to us than that. Would you agree?

L: Definitely. Women get put into so many simplified roles, be it the shopaholic airhead, the put-upon mothers, the icy, career-driven, ball-breaking older woman who will eventually admit that they regret 'not giving love a chance!' or, finally, grandmothers who are either bitter and reproachful, or rosy-cheeked cake-making martyrs who are slightly forgotten at the hub of the home and ask nothing for themselves. Men don't get characterised like this, I don't think. But, saying that, these are not simple, stereotypical women - far from it - and their presentation in these novellas is both impeccable and sympathetic,and I suppose that's better criteria for selecting a novella for publication than thinking 'I must have a female voice in her twenties, I must have one in her forties, and I must have one that's single.' 

However, it is family that defines all three of these women, and it is largely the absence of husbands and fathers that cause them their troubles...but then the majority of women do marry and have children and I suppose for many their most vivid experience comes from instants or upsets in romantic or familial love...maybe we could request that an upcoming trio be an addendum to this, following independent, non-maternal female characters? I personally am a bit disheartened, on reflection, that all three stories talk about women in relation to their husbands and children; I bet that the next three protagonists are not presented as strongly in relation to their children and wives.

Anyway, to happier topics: did you have a favourite, or a least favourite, scene or passage from the three?

S: A scene that really affected me was the scene in Beyond the Sea where the mother arrives at the seaside resort with high expectations only to be greeted with a rainy, dark, grotty town and a grimy hotel. We've all experienced that let down feeling when something isn't what you expected. What was your favourite scene?

L: Although I found it deeply upsetting, I would have to pick the closing scenes of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, as I was quite overwhelmed by the power of the Bach music crescendo juxtaposed so skilfully against the emotional climax of the book. Sad times! I also adored all the descriptions of Conxa in the fields, and also the scene in which she first dances with Jaume. I found these scenes so very vivid.

Considering that these novellas are linked as a thematic trio, did you see any marked similarities between them, or any issues on which they all had something to say? Any differences, also? Why do think that is?

S: One theme I identified was women under pressure, and the resilience we can show under difficult circumstances. The narrators of all three books also had a distinct, clear voice, something that you don't see in all novels. I'm hoping the male voices in the next series will be just as developed and powerful. Did you spot any common issues?

L: The main one for me was the overwhelming impact that men, or the absence of them, had on these women's lives, and how often they felt and were powerless to change their circumstances, bound by relationships or to a particular place in a way that the men didn't seem to be. The father runs off so the mother can't in Beside the Sea, Jaume travels, learns and fights whilst Conxa must live at home with one family member or another, and Margarethe must wait for the inevitable event of her baby's birth, and she must cope with that, no matter the truths that on some level she already knows. Resilience too, I absolutely agree, in such awful situations. Not to get too lit studies for a second, but the trio really put me in mind of Virginia Woolf's famous quote 
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an unimportant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
because another common theme is that these women are often circling wildly within their own heads, drowning often in feeling, but their perils are reactive, not active. Two of the three are literally in the midst of war, but theirs is the social history, not an account of the battlefield. Not that these books have not been marvellously well-reviewed of course, lol.

As a final thought, which of these three would you recommend to your mother/a parent? Your sister (congrats on your nephew!)? A colleague? Someone you're not close to? And why?

S: As my sister has only been a mother for a week, I wouldn't want to scare her with Beyond the Sea! I think my Mum would enjoy Stone in a Landslide as it's more of a retrospective on a whole life and that would appeal to her. To be honest, all three are well written so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to others.

L: Good call about your sister! I think Stone in a Landslide for my mother too, as it's the most classical structure and narrative; Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman to a colleague or a close friend as I'll look so clever, considering the radical one-sentence structure,  and also many of my friends have similar experiences as me to draw on, and I think Beside the Sea for someone I'm not close to as it's such a strong story, with such a horrifying resolution, that it might give us something to talk about.

 Come back next Thursday for our thoughts on the first of the next trio, 'Male Dilemma', which is Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki.

Review links:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)


'The End of Everything' by Megan Abbott

I bought The End of Everything by Megan Abbott upon seeing it in the window of my local charity shop, having read about her newest novel, Dare Me, on The Million's Most Anticipated List back in July this year. Megan Abbott is an enormously well-regarded crime writer in many circles and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.

The End of Everything, Abbott's sixth novel, is the fractured, complex story of Evie and Lizzie, two incredibly close teenage friends who do everything together until Evie suddenly disappears from their quiet suburban street. This horrific, life-changing occurrence leads Lizzie to question everything about the people around her, and also her relationship with Evie, given the unsavoury and confusing truths that steadily emerge.

I thought this book was beautifully, if  breathlessly, written, and captures the manic, deceptive confusion of Lizzie, the main character, who narrates the story to the reader in moment-to-moment retrospect both before and after Evie's disappearance. That same breathlessness has been a common feature of a few books I've read lately - namely, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman and Beside the Sea - so to my mind, considering the content of the other titles also, this type of heavily comma-ed, freely associating narration is becoming the mark of a female narrator drowning in their circumstance:
Voices pitchy, giddy, raving, we are all chanting that deathly chant that twists, knifelike, in the ear of the appointed victim. One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock, four o'clock, five o'clock...And it's Evie, she's it, lost at choosies, and now it will be her doom. But she's a good hider, the best I've ever seen, and I predict wild surprises, expect to find her rolled under a saggy front porch or buried under three inches of dirt in Mom's own frilly flower bed.
The characterisation in this book is great - the few primary characters are vivid and well-drawn - and the incessant darkness and slightly unreliable narration gave me a nightmare or two and drove the my morbid curiosity right through to the end. A great twist comes about two-thirds of the way through which sends the book off in an unexpected direction, and the revelations and final conclusion are all expertly handled. Abbott has a multitude of haunting and perceptive things to say about the burgeoning sexuality of teenage girls, sibling rivalry, the secrets of those closest to you, and also about the varying relationships that girls can have with their fathers.

This was a dark, immersive read which is beautifully written and fulfils its potential, but I was surprised to find that it left my psyche much sooner than anticipated. I'm keen to read other Megan Abbott books, having enjoyed this, but I may well donate this book to the charity shop where I found it as I feel no keen need to keep it near or to plan a re-read. I think it's probably fair to say that I respected it for its objective literary excellence, rather than took it to heart for its emotional impact, but it's a good book all the same.

Title: The End of Everything
Author: Megan Abbott
Publisher: Picador
Date: 2011
Format: 246 pages, paperback, and I bought it.


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 3: 'Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman' by Friedrich Christian Delius

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third book in mine and Sam at Tiny Library's exciting, illuminating and expansive Peirene Press readathon, in which we are reading all nine of the Peirene Press novellas published to date. For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English before now.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third of three in the Peirene series 'Female Voices' - the other two are Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi and Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal - and as you can probably see, it is the first and only book of the three actually written by a man, and also the first published in German, in 2006.

The story centres on a young German woman who is stranded in Rome in January 1943, having travelled there from her parents' village to meet her young husband who is stationed there having been sent back from Russia 'lightly wounded' to preach in the German-adopted Lutheran church on Via Sicilia in Rome, the Germans and Italians of course being WWII allies at this point. She is heavily pregnant and alone in the city but is well-looked after by German nuns in a sort of hospital cum boarding house, so for her this is a oddly comfortable yet nightmarish time, her husband serving in Africa and her about to have her first child. 
Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk (p9)    
says her doctor, so through the course of this novella we follow her as she walks through the Eternal City from her boarding house to the aforementioned church on Via Sicilia, which is holding a Bach concert at four 'clock on a sunny afternoon. It is a picturesque and timeless journey through some of Rome's most beautiful vistas and alleyways, so the scenery of Rome is described evocatively and idiosyncratically to us, woven tightly within her taut, meandering thoughts, reminiscences and dreams. Hers is a fascinating mind: it is so ordinary and typical, you could say, but from a modern perspective it is fascinating as she lets us in on all the influences that would have invaded and coloured the average German mind by 1943. As one might imagine, they are not straightforward.

The experience of reading this book is particularly special because of one unique structural quirk: the entire novella, all 125 pages, is written in one epically long sentence that uses commas and paragraph indents liberally,  but only has one, final, full stop. The effect is...unsettling, frantic and compelling, and it means it is very difficult to leave her as firstly she is always straight into the next thing, and secondly because there are no page or chapter breaks. She talks and talks and then we leave her forever, listening to Bach, sat in a pew. It is amazing but Delius pulls it off. I can't even imagine what a nightmare it must have been for Jamie Bulloch  to translate.
and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in her hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as "the girl" and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta,

while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircase... (p10) 

So, my thoughts. I almost have too many. This book is AMAZING. I read it in what seemed like a moment but was actually a few hours. This girl...my heart broke into tiny little pieces, and by the end I was sobbing as I knew what was happening and I couldn't stop it and there is no pausing for breath; and then it's over. This book turns on a sentence, a sentence of epic, weighty proportion, and I felt it approaching and when it did I could barely bear to read it, but what can you do? I actually hugged the book (I know) for quite a while after closing it, and was almost despondent with sadness for the main character until at least the following day (but still now, really, writing this.)

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but to explain my review I perhaps need to open the door a little more and say that I loved this girl because I understood her. And this is because...my own husband got sent off to Iraq just after we'd married and been sent to Germany to live by the British Army, right at the moment when winter began to close in and the nights got very, very long. Now, it wasn't anything like as bad as in this book, but then I was still only learning the very basics of German at that point and didn't really know that many people, so can vouch for the truth of this girl's forging of an artificial and lonely routine for herself to shield her mind from the worst of the worry of a husband at war. 

I mean, you can only stay in bed and cry for so long before you have to do something, but you don't know anyone or the place you're living, so the small things you do know - for instance, the concerts at church on Via Sicilia - get put up on a pedestal of wild importance and become entrenched in your experience of a time and a place. Then, once you've established a routines of sorts, the completing of that routine becomes a comfort to you and almost a talisman for your husband's safety...and so you can spiral, if you're not careful. All is fine now lol, but, suffice to say, I felt every word she said. On a very personal note, it reminded me once again how liberating and devastating it is when a unknown writer accurately details shades of your own experience, and how important and life-affirming it is that they do.

So, read this book. It's my undoubtedly my favourite Peirene book so far, and that is impressive.

Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)

 Title:  Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
Author: Friedrich Christian Delius, translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 2006, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 125 pages, and this is actually a copy I bought long before this readathon was even thought of, namely for the title because all my friends are having babies and if I have a question about life I, you know, read... :)


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 2: 'Stone in a Landslide' by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal is the second book in the wonderful Peirene Press Readathon that I am doing with Sam from Tiny Library; starting last week, we are reading our way through the nine Peirene Press novellas currently published as well as stopping every three books to discuss the thematic trio's themes and differences. Peirene Press, for those who don't know, is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which, for some reason or other, have not been translated into English before now.

So, after last week's journey on the French coast in Beside the Sea, Stone in a Landslide is a Catalan tale from the Spanish Pyrenees, published originally in Catalan - the national language of Andorra and a co-official language in parts of Spain, such as Catalonia and the Balearics - in 1985. It is the story of Conxa, a Pyrenean woman born around the turn of the 20th century, whose life in the Pyrenees in punctuated by work, marriage, child-rearing and, most importantly, the Spanish Civil War, after which it changes irrevocably.

Conxa is a stoical, hard-working woman, raised on the land and to swallow down hardship, who feels the effects of time's passing and random will over every part of her life, which by turns is joyous, brightened by work and family, and horribly, crushingly sad. She is born in a village called Ermita but, as her parents have more children than they can feed, is sent off to work on the farm of her Aunt Tia in the village, Palleres, where she makes her long-time home. As readers, we experience her very personal viewpoints on work, of her falling in love, of raising her children, of caring for relatives and being part of a community, as well as getting swept up quite blindly in the Spanish Civil War and then her feeling life's slow and inevitable decline. A lesser character might become boastful when things are good or despondent when things are sad, but Conxa is a stoic and a pragmatist,  and her lack of formal education means that this novella is written in language that is solid and clear, with little unnecessary flair, that feels tied to the land and the region.
She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days...' (p89)
She sees the world change but does not resent it for doing so, whilst also becoming increasingly objective about her family and the world around her; by the final sentence (which I am not going to give away here), she seems to have let go of her grasp and desire for a world which has taken so much, and left her with so little.
I knew he was dead and I would never have him again at my side, because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright. And I was barefoot with my children, and I had nothing apart from still being alive. (p95)
Stone in a Landslide's Conxa reminded me of Pelagia, a character from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is one of my all-time favourite novels, in the way that she revels in a world she knows and falls in love in, only for war and death to rip her life to shreds and for her to grow old and lose touch as the world moves ceaselessly on without her. There is also the same feeling of children - or in Pelagia's case, the children she raises as her children - growing apart from their mother and how this change is confusing and saddening, as also how grandchildren can be both the revival of past members of a generation and also alien beings, raised in a completely different world.

I didn't find this book as immediately engaging as Beside the Sea, perhaps because the pace is much slower and the voice is less frantic, but this is an important, vividly drawn book about life, love, loss and growing old, as well as a comment on the changing relationship that people have with regions, community and with the land.

Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Sam's)

Title:  Stone in a Landslide
Author: Maria Barbal, translation from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 1985, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 126 pages, and I was sent it, along with the rest in the series, by Peirene Press, to review as I wished.


Peirene Press Readathon No. 1: 'Beside the Sea' by Veronique Olmi

I've been keeping a little secret on this blog for the last few weeks and it thrills me to announce now to you all - with gleeful literary excitement - that:

Sam from Tiny Library and I are doing an epic Peirene readathon, starting today, in which we will read every novella published by the wonderful Peirene Press in the order that they were published - which means nine reviews, plus three thematic discussion posts where we look back over the previous three books (all will become clear as we go), so twelve weeks in all - so if you are a Peirene fan, check back here every Thursday.

As you might remember from a few posts back, I reviewed the recently published Peirene novella 'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe and also talked about a wonderful Peirene event back in September, which is where Meike (the publisher) and I first came up with the idea for a readathon extraordinaire, where we, rather innovatively, start from the beginning and read through to the end, lol. Peirene Press, for those who don't know, is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which, for some reason or other, have not been translated into English before now.

So, to the first book! Let me tell you, we have started with a bang. '
Beside the Sea' by Veronique Olmi is a haunting, shocking story, translated from the French, of a mother who is coming apart at the edges, ironically endangering the lives of her two sons, Stan and Kevin, far more than the dangers she sees and is desperate to keep them from in the outside world. We meet them at the beginning of the story catching a bus to the French coast as, quite momentously, they were going to see the sea (p9).

There are early indications that all is not well, as the mother seems exasperated and ill-equipped to deal with the demands of her two sons, and says odd things like
...it felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown place, specially as it wasn't the holidays and that's what the boys were thinking, I know they did. We'd never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life was 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. (p10)
It soon becomes clear that this is a final holiday, and that once they've seen the sea the action she wants to take, to protect them from the cruel and frightening world, can be taken. Her inner monologue is frantic and repetitive, radiant with anxiety, and Olmi cleverly uses very few full stops, mimicking breathless, obsessive speech. Immediately you are plunged into the world of this woman on the edge, seeing both the world and her sons through her sad eyes, and realising the depth to which she worries that one is not fit for the other. I read this novella in one sitting and the experience was like falling down a rabbit hole into a frightening, lost mind where you are desperate for someone to intervene but you fear that they never will...I'd actually recommend reading it in one go - a short novella at 111 pages, it took me around 90 minutes - as I think it allowed me to fully experience the immersive qualities of the writing and the tremendously well-executed tension building and narrative arc. FYI though, the end is quite chilling, so I would not recommend reading it in the house on your own on Hallowe'en, lol.

This novella also bravely provides a chillingly full portrait of how some mothers are more of a threat to their children than the actual dangers they perceive in the outside world. Social workers and psychiatrists are mentioned, which for me made the situation more terrifying: although questions have clearly been raised, these children are still fully under their mother's care, without intervention or help. The portrayal of the two boys reminded me of kids I went to school with, who were always late, dirty or tired, and never had gym kit, or would get caught stealing from teachers' bags and then get treated in an oddly lenient manner. The elder son in this story has clearly bonded with his school teacher, Marie-Helene, and is keen to progress and read and learn, but the fact that the teacher asks pertinent questions of his mother actually seems to push the son further from help as she is so offended, which as Sam says in her review, is a terrifying thought for both teachers and children alike.

I applaud Olmi for exploring such an extreme picture of the darker aspects of motherhood, as inconvenient and shocking as they might be, as the news tells us everyday of the terrible things that happen right under people's noses, but rarely do we hear the full story or receive any insight into the lead-up of what happened. I suppose it's also important to realise, for those who are mothers and for those who aren't, that despite a myriad of state and welfare structures being in place in this country when you have children, for the main part it's just you at home, alone, with your kids, and that that can be a very difficult, stressful and oppressive thing. Bravo to Peirene for starting their Female Voice series on such a gutsy and thought-provoking subject.

Moving away from the subject matter, I felt the characterisation of this book was excellent - it would not have the power it does if it wasn't - although, rather oddly, I kept getting her two sons muddled up, forgetting which was the elder, although that's probably just me being tired, and this tiny confusion had no real impact on the story. The voice, the voice of the narrator, is the kind of voice I imagine Creative Writing lecturers dream of finding amongst students - clear, passionate and real, and utterly absorbing. The only small language or translation issue I had was that the narrator kept referring to her younger son as the littl'un, which is most likely the perfect translation of whatever French phrase was used but I found that whenever I came across it it whipped me out of France and dumped me in the heart of South Yorkshire, rather funnily (as I said, just a small thing.)

Overall, this is a strong Peirene lead and an intelligent, brave and haunting book. I am so excited for the rest of the series and know that this novella, Olmi's first, will stay with me for a very long time.

Title: 'Beside the Sea'
Author: Veronique Olmi, translation from the French by Adriana Hunter
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 2001, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 111 pages, and I was sent it, along with the rest in the series, by Peirene Press, to review as I wished.

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