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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Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

This story of a mathematics professor and his housekeeper is a quiet, thoughtful book about friendship and family ties.  The professor was severely injured in an automobile accident 20 years earlier, erasing much of his memory.  He can recall events before 1975 with precision, but in the short term, can only remember the last 80 minutes.  As his sister-in-law put it, “it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”  This presents a number of challenges for his new housekeeper, not the least of which is that he cannot remember her from one day to the next.  To overcome this difficulty he pins notes to his suit, including a drawing of the housekeeper and her son, who he has nicknamed “Root” because his flat head reminds him of the square root symbol.

The novel begins on the housekeeper’s first day of work in his home.  The professor has gone through a series of housekeepers, so she expects a challenging client.  And he is, in a way: he’s a bit of a curmudgeon, set in his ways.  But he also introduces her to his world by teaching her about prime numbers, amicable numbers, and mathematical theorems.  The professor fills a void in the housekeeper’s life, and she in his.  The professor and Root discover a shared love of baseball, and he helps Root with his homework.  Although they don’t live together, they are very much a family.

The story of their relationship is simple, dealing with everyday life and events.   And yet there’s so much meaning in the fine details, and the mathematical and baseball metaphors.  A fine read.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 1

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