Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Book Review: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter)

'I like songs. They say things I can’t seem to say. If I didn’t have these rotten teeth I’d sing a lot more, a lot more often, I’d sing my boys to sleep in the evenings, tales of sailors and magical beds, but there you are, we can’t be good at everything, we can’t know how to do everything, all of it, that’s what I tell the social worker till I’m blue in the face.'

I read Beside the Sea on the recommendation of three fellow book bloggers, Farmlanebooks, Savidge Reads, and DoveGreyReader, each of whose reviews contained a phrase along the lines of ‘I’ve never read anything quite like this before.’ How could I resist such a tantalising prospect?

Beside the Sea is the story of a single mother who takes her two sons on their first trip to the seaside. Life hasn’t been easy on them and she is determined to give them one perfect weekend while they are still young. Stan is eight or nine and his younger brother, Kevin, five. The tale is narrated in the first person by their mother as a sort of stream of consciousness monologue; we follow the them as they check-in to a dreary hotel, stop for hot chocolate at a café, and visit the funfair. But as we read on the full extent of the mother’s situation starts to become clear, holes appear in her narrative, and darker intentions become worryingly possible.

At just 100 pages, this novella carries the tense emotional resonance of a thriller, utterly sucking the reader into the events on the page and bringing the lives of its protagonists uncomfortably to life. It is one of those books that you have to read in a single sitting – there is too much uncertainty to be able to walk away once you have read the first page. And yet like a child hiding behind a sofa from a scary movie, I had to put it down and send a tweet every five or ten pages just to break that tension. Beside the Sea gets to you. It gets inside you like few books ever will.

My wife and I applied to adopt a child last year. As part of that process, we learned a lot about the circumstances from which adopted children come, and this personal context made the book even more significant for me. For anyone seeking to understand the life of a child before being taken into care, this is a must read. The mother is flawed but sympathetically drawn, the children so vulnerable you just want to reach in and protect them. One of the most heartbreaking characteristics is the way that Stan parents his mother, remaining strong for her despite his young years, even while being somehow distant at the same time. He ‘acted grown up but slept like a child with no legs, like he was still afraid and didn’t want to take up too much room and get himself noticed.’

One of the things I love most about reading is that it is an act of empathy: that through stories we inhabit other skins and see the world through other eyes. The value of this cannot be underestimated. Our ability to understand each other and to look beyond our own surroundings in doing so is one of the core aspects of humanity. Beside the Sea is marketed as being about how ‘a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay’, yet that should not put male readers off. Great writing can bring any character to life (metaphorically), and that is certainly the case here. This book lets me experience, even at a distance, the mother’s life and I understand that a little better from having read it. For that, I’m grateful.

‘We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice, I’ve known that for a long time. One step forward, one step in the void. Over and over again. Going where? No one knows. No one gives a stuff.’

The experience of poverty on the fringes of a developed society is not something one reads about in fiction often, yet is brilliantly explored here. Sensually this is an uncomfortable book to read. The characters are always hungry, cold, wet, or worrying about whether they will have enough money, and this grey world of limited horizons seeps into the prose. The sea is angry and crashing, the lights from the funfair hallucinatory bright.

The mother’s voice is strong and convincing, if unreliable in its content. Because we see Kevin and Stan only through the distorting view of their mother, her tangled thinking both illuminates and hides everything that is going on. She often mentions the holes in her memory and this creates a situation where the reader is unsure whether anything about this past tense narrative can be trusted.

Adriana Hunter does a magnificent job of creating a colloquial, flowing sort of speech-like narrative. The translation is masterfully composed and invisible. This is a story that could be set anywhere and although it is translated from the French, English readers will have to pinch themselves to believe that this seaside they visit isn’t Skegness, Great Yarmouth, or Bognor Regis in winter.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in recent years is that some of the works in translation I’ve enjoyed most have been those that a translator discovered, fell in love with, and took to a publisher saying ‘this has to published’. That was the case with Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon, and is the case here too. Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea) was a French literary bestseller on publication in 2001, and so taken with the story was Adriana Hunter that she translated it unpaid, convinced that readers would love it as she had. However, it took nearly a decade before Perirene Press took it on, and she was proved correct.

Peirene Press was formed in 2010 to bring great European novellas to English language readers. They create a themed reading experience, curating three books a year that can be purchased as a subscription, or individually in bookshops. Beside the Sea was their first book, and has been followed by ten others. I’ve read four, and though none quite matches the emotional battering of Beside the Sea they have each been worth a read. I would particularly recommend The Murder of Halland (an deconstructed crime novel) and The Mussel Feast (a family drama that explores how cracks in tyranny can start to appear). It is publishers like Peirene, who are at the forefront of much that excites me in literature at the moment; I cannot recommend subscribing enough.

Beside the Sea is bleak yet riveting. It moved me as few books ever have. Most readers I’ve spoken to have been similarly effected. Be brave: it depicts life at its harshest but is writing at its most affecting.

Beside the Sea is published by Peirene Press (2010). ISBN: 9780956284020, 111pp  

To read the opening pages from Beside the Sea click here

1 comment:

Andrew Blackman said...

Good review of a book that I read when it came out and was similarly impressed by. I didn't know that about Adriana Hunter translating it unpaid and then trying to get it published. That's quite a commitment to a book, and in this case I can see why. I also enjoyed Down the Rabbit Hole, so will try The Polish Boxer on your recommendation. Maybe this can be a new criterion for reading books - ones discovered by translators, not publishers!