‘Beside the Sea’ is one of those short stylist books published by Peirene where the brevity of the story belies its formidable strength and power. The narrative, in which a single mother takes her two young sons on a trip to the sea side is also slight and, frankly, if I were to spoil the ending now it might even seem clichéd in its exploration of destructive families. What makes it remarkable is the cold precision of the first person narration, the force of which would probably be unsustainable through a longer book, but works perfectly within Peirene’s conditions for publication (under 200 pages, can be read in the same time as it takes to watch a film).
Our narrator takes us through the events of the trip, from the over-long bus ride (taken late at night so no-one will see them) to the grim, shabby hotel room, all described through the eyes of a woman who tells us emphatically ‘I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything.’ Then, with increasing dread, we see how much the kids do indeed notice, how terribly inadequate her best really is, and how any fault in perception lies with the woman guiding us through the story and not with the characters whose lives she controls.
I am a huge fan of unreliable narrators, and rarely are they as perfectly realised as in Olmi’s novella (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter). The unnamed mother’s skewed and deeply subjective view of the world is compelling, believable and ultimately horrific as we get glimpses of how the same situation appears to others, from the strangers they encounter to her withdrawn and frightened children. She is not a narrator out to fool the readers, but a woman unable to see past her own preoccupations or immediate emotions; a situation which is relatable, but increasingly terrifying as we see how this impacts on her own relationships and the tragic fate of her family.
‘Beside the Sea’ is the perfect Pierene novel. An introduction to an acclaimed French author, it won’t take you long to read, but it will stay with you far beyond the under-two-hours reading time promised by the publishers. As illustrated by its disturbed narrator, its not about what actually happens in a story, but how it makes you feel that counts, and, for me, ‘Beside the Sea’ carries more emotional weight than I could have imagined when I first picked it up. Possibly my favourite Pierene book to date, and certainly a story to make me see the positive side of having no holidays lined up in the immediate future, because who needs the disillusionment out there in the real world when there is such wonderfully-crafted literature to escape into.