Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"the ones that take me straight to the place I mustn't go"

Beside the Sea
By Véronique Olmi
Translated by Adriana Hunter
111 pages
Peirene Press
February 4, 2010

It's lost. Fallen into a hole. You struggle to live as best you can but soon the whole lot disappears. We get up in the morning, but that morning doesn't actually exist any more than the night before which everyone's already forgotten. 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.

Véronique Olmi is an award-winning dramatist currently living in Paris. 2001's Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea) was her first novel. A bestseller in its native France, Beside the Sea has since been translated into all major European languages, and now in English as Peirene Press's debut release. Olmi's seventh and most recent book,
Le Premier Amour, came out earlier this year.

Beside the Sea is very short and spans a mere 24 hours. The narrator arrives late at night in an unnamed coastal town with her two little boys in tow: nine-year-old Stan and five-year-old Kevin. Although she has been saving her money for some time, the trip is poorly planned and she is barely able to orient herself and find a hotel. It is apparent from the start that something is not right. There are references made to social workers, a psychiatrist, and medication she is not presently taking. Her overwhelming desire to protect and shelter her children is amplified by paranoia, intense anxiety, and depressing thoughts about the state of the world and other people. As the day progresses and her delusions increase, the result can only be tragic.

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, which has similar themes of motherhood, psychological trauma, and the harm done to children. I argued that that particular book (432 pages) should have been much shorter to better drive home its emotional impact. I cited several novellas as examples of powerfully condensed writing, but now feel that Beside the Sea best illustrates the point I was trying to make. Olmi's prose is fast-flowing and rambling yet still manages to convey the slow suffocation of its narrator. It actually reminded me of Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole in the way the reader is swept along as though trying to escape an oppressive atmosphere. Due to its length, Beside the Sea has to spring forward from the very first page and relentlessly push ahead with little digression. There's no time to stop and catch a breath, which only intensifies the reading experience.

Now I'm not sure if the narrator is literally supposed to be schizophrenic (she seems to exhibit some of its symptoms, including auditory hallucinations) but it's worth noting that its etymology derives from the Greek words skhizein and phren, meaning "to split" and "mind."* Beside the Sea is a story of dissonance and the clash of opposing halves, of mental darkness and the "good mother" trying to reconcile in one individual. On the surface, she is simply taking her children on an outing to the beach and the fair. But the tragic irony is that this picturesque family image, which this mother tries so hard to realize, crumbles into the most monstrous act a parent is capable of. The real power of Beside the Sea is precisely this juxtaposition of the idyllic and the aberrant. It would be easy to condemn this woman but Olmi skillfully evokes our sympathy for someone whose maternal love went all too wrong.

Obviously, this is a very intense read. Véronique Olmi took on the difficult task of articulating mental states nearly beyond words and succeeded almost too well. Beside the Sea is frightening not only because of its ending but because its troubled protagonist is so relatable. Her character is not as alien as we would like it to be. Her duties and feelings as a mother are reflected right back at us and we can't comfortably detach her from the rest of humanity. Beside the Sea is the type of book that will remain with the reader for a long time afterwards and requires a certain amount of bravery to approach. Strongly recommended.

* Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia is not a split personality disorder.

A special thanks to Meike Ziervogel for this review copy.


JoAnn said...

This sounds fascinating! I know I won't be able to find it around here, but we'll be visiting Daughter #1 in NY soon... I need another excuse to visit Strand Books again.

E. L. Fay said...

Alas, Peirene's books aren't available in US stores yet. You'll have to order it from Amazon. And please do - it's a great book.

Isabella said...

Everyone who's read this raves about it. Can't get it here (Canada) yet, so thought I'd try it in French -- but no such luck, that's not readily available either. I'm waiting, impatiently.

Wendy said...

Thanks to you, I managed to get a review copy of this book and posted my review tonight...I love your review (you did a much better job than I did in putting into words why this was such a powerful book). I enjoy novellas when they are so well written, like this one. Thanks for turning me onto Peirene Press :)

E. L. Fay said...

Isabella: I wish I could read this in French. Reading as much great translated fiction as a I do, I've often wondered how these works differ from their original languages. I really need to work on my Spanish.

Wendy: That is so awesome! I'm so glad the word is getting out about Peirene Press. I love what Meike Ziervogel is doing and wish I could do the same. That's like my ultimate dream job - starting my own press for translated literature!

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading this. The book has been getting such excellent reviews.

Emily said...

Just got back from vacation & am catching up with blog posts, but I have to say this sounds AMAZING. Also, I just finished a collection of Shirley Jackson short stories, and your description of the protagonist's mental deterioration reminds me strongly of some of Jackson's work...also short, extremely disorienting & very well done. Will have to search out Olmi...I wonder if I could track down this book in French?

E. L. Fay said...

Iris: I can't wait to see your review!

Emily: Do you speak French AND Spanish? WOW! I wish I could read this one in the original language.

The only Shirley Jackson work I've read is "The Lottery," unfortunately.

Emily said...

Heh, I speak mediocre/semi-fluent French which I'm actively trying to improve because David & I hope to go to France next Spring (fingers crossed!). Once upon a time I was fluent in Spanish, but now a Borges short story is about the limit of my capacity, with dictionary in hand. :-/

claire said...

Requiring a certain amount of bravery.. mm.. I already feel a certain affinity for this book. :D

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