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.