Tag Archives: Tin House Books

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi: Thoughts

1st October 2012

*I picked up this book at BEA from the great people at Tin House Books.

Beside the Sea, a novella by Véronique Olmi, translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is what Lionel Shriver (author of We Need To Talk About Kevin) describes as “[a] sustained exercise in dread for the reader” because from the opening lines of the novella, it is apparent that all is not well with our unnamed narrator who is taking her two sons on a trip, staying in a rundown hotel, parceling out her coins for hot chocolate and a trip to the carnival, knowing all along it will be the last trip they make together.

We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.

This mother wants no witnesses to their departure, and though jam is left out, it won’t be used again, so she doesn’t mind the waste too terribly. Though the title implies a vacation of some sort, the way the author describes leaving, it doesn’t sound as though this will be a pleasant holiday on the seashore.

In that oddly-disturbing stream of consciousness manner evident in the brief quote above, the narrator and mother of two boys, describes the two-day trip, and as she does, her further descent and overwhelming despair are suffocating. Riding the bus, she describes watching the cars below:

So cars – which are normally so frightening – were pathetic little contraptions now…it made them see less dangerous, yep, we felt better protected in that bus, even if we were dying of cold.

And here:

Now that we knew where we were we could pretend we didn’t give a damn about anything, didn’t feel any danger, like the other passengers.

This is a fragile individual, one for whom the everyday is nearly impossible, but there are moments of lucidity:

…shoes are the ruination of many a mother. I love saying that: many a mother! then heaving a sigh, overwhelmed, like the ones who wait at twenty-five after four, that’s when you feel like you’ve got so much in common and might understand each other.

But no one does understand this mother, and she’s obviously been tested before as she mentions the social worker with whom she’s met multiple times for various reasons, though none is ever explained. We do know, though, that she’s incapable of remembering almost anything, so rarely remembering to pick up her young son from school that the 9-year-old Stan takes over the responsibility.

At times, she’s painfully aware that she’s different:

You’re never what they want you to be. You irritate them, disgust them….Sometimes, no one knows why, someone exactly matches what everyone expected. And everybody loves them, they cheer them and put them on TV. It’s very rare.

When they finally reach their destination, wet from the rain, dirty, and exhausted, she talks about her weariness:

I’m the only one who’s so exhausted, didn’t I used to long to be knocked down by a car and break my leg so I’d finally have a good enough reason to be left in peace? When am I going to be left in peace?

Yet her children don’t seem to disturb that peace, though her son Stan is ever watchful, watching over Kevin, the youngest, and his mother, obviously aware of any changes in her mood and sensitive to them. Reading her descriptions of him made me achingly sad, so aware that his little life was full of anxiety, wondering if his mother would need to cry or need to sleep or need silence.

They go to the seaside because the boys have always wanted to see it, and because the outing isn’t successful, ruined by a shopkeeper who scorns the few coins she has to feed the boys on their trip, she decides to make it up to them, taking them to a carnival, wanting to see them happy. But the happiness doesn’t last, and they return to the hotel:

I was frightened. We went into that place like going into a church….Churches are very old but they never die. An empty church is something you can’t explain, I like it. The hotel was the same. Something had to happen there.

And happen it does, in a most effective way. The translation award-winning Adriana Hunter is beautiful, all the more because of the challenge of the stream of consciousness narration. At 119 pages, this novella is brief but incredibly powerful, exploring all those unanswerable questions that arise when a mother kills her children.

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