Beside the SeaVéronique Olmi
The French controversial bestseller for the first time available in English.
A single mother takes her two young 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 an uncomprehending and cold world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.
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.
WINNER OF THE SCOTT MONCRIEFF PRIZE 2011 FOR BEST ENGLISH TRANSLATION FROM FRENCH
LONGLISTED FOR THE INDEPENDENT FOREIGN FICTION PRIZE 2011
ADAPTED INTO A MAJOR PLAY AT THE SOUTHBANK CENTRE
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
This is the most impressive novel about the mother and child relationship I have read. Véronique 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.
Written by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.
Female Voice Series
120pp, Paperback with Flaps, £8.99
Published February 2010
Véronique Olmi is a highly acclaimed French dramatist and her twelve plays have won numerous awards. Bord de Mer, published in 2001, was her first novel and has become an international bestseller. Her seventh novel came out in 2010.
‘One day I read four lines in a newspaper – a mother took her two children to a funfair, bought them some chips and then murdered them. I was shocked. I didn’t understand. The funfair and chips meant love. The murder meant hate. I couldn’t let go of that thought until I realized that this mother actually loved her children but her love was a form of madness. So I decided to write this story because I wanted to reveal the inhumanity within us humans.’ Véronique Olmi
Adriana Hunter has translated over 50 books from French, including works by Agnès Desarthe, Véronique Ovalde and Hervé Le Tellier. She has translated four titles for Peirene: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, for which she won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize, Under The Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean and Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun. Adriana has been short-listed twice for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
In 2007 she translated Bord de Mer on spec because she loved the text and felt it ought to be given a chance in English. In spring 2009 she approached Peirene. Meike read it and was immediately won over, by the story but also by the thoughtful, flawless translation. The rest is history.
‘A harrowing evocation of mental illness, and of one woman’s terrifying inability to bear the burdens of motherhood. A sustained exercise in dread for the reader, but a surprisingly sympathetic portrait nonetheless.’ Lionel Shriver, author of We Need To Talk About Kevin
‘This is a mesmerising portrait … it should be read.’ Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
‘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.’ Chris Schueler, The Independent
‘Prose… filled with sad poetic sense and blunt, bleak realities, compellingly conveyed in Hunter’s colloquial English.’ TLS
‘Tragic. Moving. Essential reading, offering painful insight into the human condition and particularly the lives of women.’ Rosie Goldsmith, BBC
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.
Leaving on the bus I think they were happy, a bit anxious, too, because I hadn’t explained anything. I’d brought their jackets in case it rained, it often rains by the sea – that I had told them, at least, they were going to see the sea.
It was Kevin, the little one, who seemed happiest, more inquisitive anyway. But Stan kept giving me suspicious looks like when I just sit in the kitchen and he watches me, thinking I don’t know he’s there, barefoot, in his pyjamas, I don’t even have the strength to say Don’t stay there with nothing on your feet, Stan. Yep, sometimes I sit in the kitchen for hours and I couldn’t give a stuff about anything.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for the bus and no one saw us leave. It felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown place, specially as it wasn’t the holidays and that’s what the boys kept thinking, I know they did. We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.
When the bus turned up we all felt nervous, shy like. We couldn’t have felt more uncomfortable going into a luxury cabin on a first-class cruise ship. It was only a noisy old bus with no heating, mind you. Oh yes, it was certainly cold. You got into the thing and it felt like walking into a draught.
I paid our fares with the last big banknote I had, and we went and sat at the back, the boys and me, with our sports bags at our feet, I’d stuffed them full of warm clothes for the kids, there were too many clothes, I know, but it was quite a panic packing those bags, I can’t explain it. I wanted to put everything into them, I knew it was pointless, I wanted it to come with us, stuff from home, familiar things, things you recognize as yours straight away. Kevin wanted me to take his toys, too, but I didn’t want to, I knew pretty well we wouldn’t be playing.
There were a lot of people around us, unbelievable that there are so many people out there, specially so late, where were they all from, were they going to the same place as us, no way of knowing, they looked calm, lost in quiet thoughts. My kids were full of questions, Is it going to take long? Will it be light when we get there? Things like that, I wasn’t sure what to tell them, I felt sick and didn’t really want to talk, I definitely didn’t want to give other people a chance to listen to us.
We were high up in the bus, so cars – which are normally so frightening – were pathetic little contraptions now, we could see the drivers’ hands, their legs, their stuff on the passenger seat, see them almost as clearly as if they’d been sitting in their own homes, it made them seem less dangerous, yep, we felt better protected in that bus, even if we were dying of cold.
It wasn’t long before Kevin needed a wee. It’s just nerves, I told him, but he started to worry, he was afraid he’d do it in his pants, he’s easily worried. And me who didn’t want to attract attention, I had to go down the aisle in front of everyone, to stop the bus and have my boy pee against the wheel, in the dark, by the side of the road, cars whooshing past with a fierce flash of headlights. Stan, now he’s never a problem. Never a pee. Never hungry. Nor thirsty. He never asks for anything, sometimes it bothers me a bit, I’d prefer it if he’d look at me less and whinge a bit more. Now it doesn’t matter any longer.
For Reading Groups
Our Reading Guide for Beside the Sea with much food for thought.
1 The first reference to this being the last trip for the family is in the first line. Is it important that the reader is aware of the finality of this holiday throughout the story?
2 The Mother’s language is simple throughout the story. Is her voice convincing?
3 The Mother tells us very little about her background. Discuss the effect that has on the plot.
4 The Mother commits a horrific act. However, does the reader have sympathy for her?
5 The end is described in minute detail. Is that necessary in the context of the story?
6 The Mother comments on her relationship with her two sons throughout the story, watching the boys act independently of her. “I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother’s son, exactly when he became unrecognisable” (p49). Explore Olmi’s depiction of a mother-child relationship, given solely from the mother’s perspective.
7 “I’m just missing a few chemicals, yes, that’s what I tell myself when I swallow my pills” (p69). How does the author tackle the often-taboo subject of mental illness?
8 The author does not give a year in which this story is set. Is it a timeless tale, or a very contemporary subject?
9 Discuss the role of the weather and the sea in Beside the Sea.
10 The book blogger William Rycroft compares Beside the Sea to the Booker shortlisted Room by Emma Donoghue: “The fact is that in a far shorter work Olmi writes completely convincingly about some one alienated from the world they live in and about a mother’s desire to protect her children from harm, two of Room’s major themes.” Discuss how Olmi, and Donoghue if you have read Room, write about alienation from society.
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