Review: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

From the opening sentence, I knew there was something different about this book:  We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. I was instantly intrigued and wary.  Why would a mother and her two young sons want to leave home unnoticed?  The bus takes them to a seaside town, to fulfill the mother’s wish that her boys see the ocean.  The nameless mother provides the narrative, and the more I lived inside her head, the greater my fear and trepidation.  It’s clear she loves her sons, and wants to preserve their childhood as long as possible:

he jumps onto my bed and asks me to give him a farty  kiss, that’s a big kiss on his tummy which makes a lot of noise and it makes him laugh so much you wouldn’t believe it, it’s like he’s laughing to hear himself laugh, that he’s making the most of that laughter, having fun with it, and I know that a laugh like that runs away the minute you grow up.  (p. 32)

But little by little, the story reveals a troubled soul.  The holiday is stressful in the way holidays with young children can be.  The weather is horrible, and she must deal with two little boys, cooped up in a sixth-floor hotel room accessible only by stairs.  But she is also overcome by anxiety and paranoia.  Having scraped together all the spare change in the house to spend on treats, she is convinced local merchants are looking down on her for paying with coins instead of notes.  Eventually her anxiety gets the better of her, and she escapes into sleep, leaving the boys to fend for themselves in the hotel room:

I left everything, left that town and myself along with it: my body was weightless, painless, I sank into something soft and I shed my fear and anger, and my shame too. I went to a world where there’s a place kept for me.  Not asleep and not awake, I’m a feather. Not asleep and not awake, but I come undone, I sprawl out look a cotton reel unwinding. Why did I topple over the edge then? Why did I start to dream? (p. 59)

The young family’s loneliness and desperation was so sad, and I was completely immersed in the mother’s unraveling.   But I still gasped out loud when the novella reached its inevitable climax.  This is a beautifully written story, but one that will haunt me for quite some time.

This book was a “new and notable” selection in Belletrista Issue 3

Other reviews of Beside the Sea:

* FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

  1. I knew this book would get a high rating from you, Laura. It is quite an astonishing novella, isn’t it? I was so disturbed by it, and yet also completely swept away by the writing.

  2. I’m really pleased that you’ve read this little book. I can’t stop thinking about it. I think it is one of those books that will haunt you for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that is so intense.

  3. I have yet to read this, but I think I will read it only after finishing my university projects. I have a feeling this will leave an impression and I would like to take my time..

    I have to say that all of these positive reviews make me want to read this even more. It seems this book is universally loved.

  4. @Jackie, thank you for your wonderful review — otherwise I would have been completely unaware of this book!

    @Wendy, I read your review after I’d written mine, and as usual we were on the same page (pun intended!)

    @Iris, it’s a very short book (111 pages) and can be read quickly, so it’s not difficult to make time to read, but it would be good for your mind to be free of other distractions.

  5. That first line! :] Amazing, isn’t it, how Olmi still managed to maintain the tension even though we knew something was up, and we sort of knew what that might be? That ending, how she led to the ending. Just so awesome, craft-wise. I’m a teensy jealous of her, haha.

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