Beside the Sea, By Véronique Olmi

Reviewed,Cj Schler
Thursday 25 February 2010 01:00

A young single mother takes her sons, five-year-old Kevin and nine-year-old Stan, out of school for a treat they have never experienced: a trip to the seaside. Almost from the outset, this seemingly innocuous family holiday has a desperate quality. The resort is a bleak, muddy place beside a colourless sea, their hotel room a drab box, the people at best indifferent, at worst hostile.

"I did my best, yes really my best," she protests, but nothing ever goes right. As she attempts to justify herself, we learn that she is on psychiatric medication, spending much of the day in bed while Stan takes Kevin to school. Loving and fiercely protective, she is utterly bemused by the world around her. Attentive readers will notice clues that this is a one-way trip. It has consumed all her resources, not only psychologically but financially. She has made no provision for a return journey.

First published in France in 2001, Bord de Mer was Véronique Olmi's debut novel, and became a bestseller. It has been made available in English thanks to its superb translator, Adriana Hunter, and the publisher, Peirene Press. At a time when publishing houses are battening down the hatches against the wintry economic climate, Peirene are to be congratulated for choosing this gem of a novel as their first venture.

Olmi's achievement is to find a narrative voice which conveys a rich inner life and even a sense of poetry, without resorting to language beyond the plausible reach of her protagonist. She makes understandable and even sympathetic a character from whom most people would recoil.

This short novel has the trajectory of a classic tragedy with its taut time-span and sense of inevitability, as we witness a woman destroyed by a tragic flaw. Finding the world a hostile place, she can imagine only one way to protect her children from it. The closing pages are heart-stopping and heartbreaking, yet one finishes this sad tale not depressed but uplifted by its ability to enlarge the reader's sympathies.

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