Beside The Sea by Véronique Olmi
Peirene Press (ebook), 2012 (first published 2001)
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from a cold and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys. This is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. Veronique Olmi handles an aspect of motherhood we all too often deny. She depicts a woman’s fear of releasing her children into the world. The simple first person narrative achieves an extraordinary level of poetry and inner truth. The French literary bestseller, first published in 2001, has been translate.
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.
WHAT I THOUGHT
Beside the Sea is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s heart-breaking and touched me more than a book has in a long time. There is no happiness or hope in the book. No sense anything better waits. The book is unbearably bleak at times. There’s a sense of awful hopeless throughout, a cloak of sadness that never lifts. You heart can’t help but break for the character and her sons. What should be a nice family trip to the sea serves to emphasise how bleak their situation is. The mother is bad with her nerves and constantly thinks about various visits from social workers. In one scene that was almost painful to read, Stan, the older boy is counting out change to pay for four drinks in a grubby café. He’s ridiculed by the owner and a group of customers. Even the trip to the fairground is awful and leaves them penniless. I wonder if the mother took them on holiday intending to kill them. Did she take all of her savings and let Stan have coke and take them to the fairground because she knew it would be the last time? Or did she make a snap decision because the trip was a disaster and she realised how bleak their lives were? It’s not very clear in the book. I hope she didn’t take them to the sea with murder on her mind because that would make it so much more awful. I had nothing but sympathy for the mother at the end of the book. I felt she wasn’t able to cope with life at all and didn’t want her sons to grow up feeling the same. I can’t bear to imagine her as a heartless murderess. I was in tears by the end of the book. I feel honoured to have read this book.
Beside the Sea is a tour-de-force; shocking, real and painful. This book will stay with me for a long time.