Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. by Adriana Hunter (French)

A single mother of two boys wants to take them on a little holiday near the sea. That might sound simple enough, but for this mother, it is a major life event and a challenge, as she suffers from some kind of mental affliction that normally requires her to take daily medication.

Beside the SeaThis trip is out of the ordinary and we experience it from inside the mind of the mother, the stream of consciousness narrative is so effective here, it gets inside our mind as we read. We feel her sense of anxiety acutely and become almost as sensitive as she is to the threatening hostility of the outside world, that place from which she wishes to protect her children.

She wants them to experience the wonder of the seaside, she takes them for hot chocolate and they visit a funfair, all of which present certain challenges. She observes and reflects on aspects of their characters with a poetic clarity that all mothers will relate to.

“I stopped on the sea wall, my two kids holding my hands, I wondered how to do it, how to say hello to the sea.  It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered. I stayed there, not moving a muscle, watching it…I’d been waiting for it such a long time!”

It is an incredible novella and I appreciated it all the more, ironically, after following  recent discussion on Vishy’s review of Nabakov’s Lolita . They discuss that dilemma many readers have when they recognise an exceptional prose style but feel uncomfortable with the subject or the perceptions of the protagonist. It makes it hard to share an opinion and it takes time to understand our reactions. We observe them first and then try to understand them.

What I found most interesting in those subsequent comments actually came from the more experienced readers, those who had read it more than once and they describe what changed in terms of their own perceptions with subsequent readings. In the first read we react more to the story and character, in subsequent readings it seems the reader has greater insight into the intentions of the writer/artist, beyond surface character and plot.

Those comments made me think more about Beside The Sea and wonder if I might appreciate it more coming to it for a second time. I was in admiration of the style but uncomfortable with the journey. I would recommend it to the curious, thinking reader who isn’t quick to judge and it’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

anxietyThe author does an incredible job in making the reader empathise with the mother, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy going into that state and arriving at its inevitable conclusion.

I also couldn’t help thinking about these kind of stories in the media, the short versions which usually focus on the result and not what leads people to where they end up. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean by that. I think the enjoyment of this book will also be dependent on where one is on the ‘potential for empathy’ scale.

It is an interesting challenge, that an author would choose to travel inside the mind of someone like this and write in the stream-of-consciousness form.  I am sure this was one of the works that the publisher and writer Mieke Ziervogel read as background research in writing her own debut novella ‘Magda‘.

Poignant and thought-provoking given the issues that lie beneath its surface, this is the story that is almost never told and rarely understood by the public, who often only see that end result favoured by the media and judge it far too easily.

This is the first book in the Peirene Press Female Voices: Inner Realities series, all of which I am reading in January 2015.

Next Up : Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan)

Female Voice Inner Realities

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23 thoughts on “Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. by Adriana Hunter (French)

  1. Claire,
    Thank you for all your reviews. After reading your suggestions, especially the 2014 ones, I rushed (not really but that sounded good) over to Amazon and bought 10 books. Now my kindle account is full of unread stories. I promise to call/write when I am back in the spring. coffee?
    Happy New Year!
    Judy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very thoughtful review, Claire. I love what Peirene do, the diversity of the books Meike selects, and while I haven’t read this one my impression is that it’s a very hard-hitting story. Looking forward to reading your review of Stone in a Landslide – another I’ve yet to read but it’s on one of my wishlists.

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    • They are indeed diverse Jacqui and it’s so great that Mieke has a network of contacts and the literary research skills to find such works that bring us such though provoking narratives and have them translated into English so we can share them.

      Stone in a Landslide is wonderful, I loved it and almost wish it had been a full blown much longer novel, Maria Barbal writes so well from inside her character, her life in a rural village, getting my thoughts together 🙂

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  3. I’ve read the first 9 of the Peirene books and this remains my favourite. I didn’t enjoy being in the main character’s head, but I had so much appreciation for the writing and how Olmi bought the character to life. I had guessed the ending before it happened, but it was still very powerful.

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    • That’s just how I felt Sam, that admiration for the ability to put the reader inside the characters mind and understand how she tried to function, something that no one would wish to experience, though we may benefit more from being temporarily inside that mind than judging it’s consequence without that insight. Wonderful to know that this was your favourite and that you too are reading Peirene’s choices.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a mother, this was a very difficult read on an emotional level. I felt so uncomfortable, torn and drawn to these children.
    As an observer of literature, I think it’s a great book.

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  5. The fact that it’s stream of consciousness from the mother’s point of view makes this book all the more interesting, I’m sure. You introduced me to Peirene Press; they have such a wonderful collection so thank you for that.

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    • Thanks Letizia, I missed this first series when I first subscribed to Peirene, so I’m happy to have a reason to go back and read them, in fact my first book was Number 10 The Mussel Feast, so a nice backlist to get through eventually, while still looking forward to what’s coming. This year’s Chance Encounter series looks excellent!

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  6. Its hard to say i LIKED this book given the story ….but i found it a very powerful read and the voice of the mother was absolutely authentic . So was the sense of place ….having soent many cold and wet days in various N French coastal towns !!

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  7. Interesting how reading comments about other books informs how you think about what you’re currently reading. It does sound like an intriguing book. I want to read all of the books in the Female Voices series as well.

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    • Yes, the conversation adds so much more to the book reading experience and to our understanding of our own reactions, I just love that about blog reviews and comments. I like to be honest to my own, less informed reaction and then watch how it flourishes once I begin to read other perspectives and especially those with that long view, if it is a book that has been around long enough to be reread.

      I am of course reminded on that other book I am struggling with Eric, The Waves! I have described it as like standing in front of a painting for hours waiting for enlightenment and I know it’s not going to come from the first sitting. So I’m letting it just wash over me for now. If I hadn’t read your mention of the power of rereading it, I may have abandoned or given up seeking its treasures. 🙂

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      • Yes I saw from your Goodreads updates that you’re struggling with the Waves. I think her use of language does make it difficult and I fully appreciate some people might not ever warm to it. Rather than rereading it silently, I usually prefer to read it aloud myself or listen to an audio book recording. It sort allows the ideas to seep out and strike. For me it’s similar to listening to music where suddenly a lyric will strike me with the emotional power of its meaning. It took me a long time to really feel the distinct perspectives of the different characters. I’m honoured my passion for it has prompted you to stick with it. But I think it is like books of poetry where it’s something that can be picked up and pondered for some time and then it can be left again.

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  8. Wonderful review, Claire. I love the Peirene Press Female Voices Inner Reality series. I think I will subscribe to it. This book sounds quite interesting, fascinating and also hard to read. It is interesting to see the world from the main character’s point of view, on how difficult it is to navigate every moment of every day. How a person like this does her best at parenting, bringing happiness to her children, finding happiness and joy and fulfilment in life with all the attendant challenges – it is fascinating to contemplate. I will add this to my ‘to be read’ list and will look for it. Thanks for this wonderful review, Claire.

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  9. Pingback: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch | Word by Word

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