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Beside the Sea – Book Review

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. – from Beside the Sea, page 76 –

A mother takes her two children – 9 year old Stan and 5 year old Kevin – to a bedraggled seaside village. She wants her children to see the ocean. But, right from the start, the reader feels uneasy. There is something not quite right and the prose has a dark thread weaving through it which belies the innocence of the trip.

I wanted to put everything into them, I knew it was pointless, I wanted it to come with us, stuff from home, familiar things, thing 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. – from Beside the Sea, page 10 –

As Beside the Sea unfolds, the unease becomes dread. This is a dark, haunting, and desolate story whose ending is projected long before the last page is turned.

Veronique Olmi’s novella is one about the fragile nature of relationships,  the love of a mother whose fears for her children put them in danger, and the sad spiral into mental illness. Narrated in the limited first person point of view of the mother, the story becomes a powerful exploration inside the head of a person who is losing their grip on reality. Olmi’s prose is beautifully yet simply wrought. It captures the bleakness of the sea on a stormy day and the isolation of a woman who has no one but her children. As mother and children navigate the town, they encounter other people – most of whom move on with their lives without noticing anything amiss or who fail to act when things seem wrong. Despite being surrounded by others, this family of three seems all alone.

I sped through this novella in just a couple of short hours. Although heartbreaking, I could not put it aside until I finished it. Compelling and horrifying, the book pulled me into the life of a frightened and unbalanced woman. Good fiction lets the reader stand in the shoes of its characters and takes them somewhere they have not been before. Beside the Sea does this.

Recommended for readers who love literary fiction and translated fiction.

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

10 Comments

  1. June 15, 2010    

    Yes, that’s a big part of the story I forgot to mention – the fact that the world sort of passes this family by, no one sensing the danger. The night clerk sees her crying but that’s about it. But you also wonder if there was really anything anyone could have done, since Olmi makes it clear she was already being treated for mental illness. The ending had a certain inevitability, especially the way the prose really pushed you headlong towards it.

  2. June 15, 2010    

    El Fay: I know what you mean about the inevitability…it was part of why the book was so chilling. Right from the first pages a sense of dread is created and things are moving relentlessly forward to the ending which the reader already expects. Another one of those books which are like watching a train wreck – you don’t want to watch, but you can’t turn away.

  3. June 15, 2010    

    I loved this book! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so intense. I couldn’t put it down either. I really needed to know what happened and once I did I was just so sad. I’m pleased that you’ve experienced it too.

  4. Amy Amy
    June 16, 2010    

    I can’t wait to read this, it sounds lovely!

  5. June 16, 2010    

    I find mental illness in literature one of the most fascinating things to read about. Each author deals with it differently, making it possible to have hundreds if not thousands of different interpretations. This book sounds a little like When We Were Romans. Have you read that one yet? If not, I do recommend it. Very nice review, this book is going on my list. Thanks!!

  6. June 16, 2010    

    Jackie: I must have missed your review of this one…I’m headed off to your blog to find it!

    Amy: It is a memorable read.

    Zibilee: I agree – I’ve read several books over the years that deal with mental illness. This one is done really well. I haven’t read We Were Romans…will need to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. June 21, 2010    

    What an awesome review and your words have made me want to read this one for sure!

  8. June 22, 2010    

    I loved this book! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so intense. I couldn’t put it down either. I really needed to know what happened and once I did I was just so sad. I’m pleased that you’ve experienced it too.

  9. June 23, 2010    

    Staci: Thanks – I will look forward to seeing what you think of the book.

    Claire: I agree – intense is a great way to describe it.

  10. December 9, 2010    

    This sounds like an amazing book! What a great review, Wendy! I definitely need to add this to my tbr pile.

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