Beside The Sea – Véronique Olmi

Some books you need to write about quite some time after you have read them to let the settle with you and other times a book hits you so strongly that you want to write about it the instant that you have finished it. I am doing the latter with ‘Beside the Sea’ by Veronique Olmi whilst the emotions which it has so strongly brought out of me are still fresh. 

I can’t really start my bookish thoughts on ‘Beside the Sea’ without stating that it is one of the most intense reads that I have had the fortune (though maybe that’s not quite the right word) of reading recently. It starts as the simple tale of a single mother taking her children on a holiday to see the sea for the first time only as the book develops much darker undertones start to slowly seep out of the narrative and you realise this isn’t going to be quite the picturesque read that you thought it might be.

To give away very much about this books storyline would be to spoil this book for the reader. I will try not to let the cat out of the bag when I describe what an amazing tension Olmi creates in this novel through the narration. The nameless young mother describes to the reader her trip away and as the tale goes on from the coach ride to hotel arrival, café treats to first sightings of the sea you are given small glimpses that something isn’t quite right. Health centres, social workers, Sundays in bed all day and medication start to be mentioned and the further you read on the more you get that gut feeling all is not well and something darker is coming.

“I like songs.They say things I can’t seem to say. If I didn’t have these rotten teeth I’d sing alot more, a lot more often, I’d sing my boys to sleep in the evenings, tales of sailors and magical beds, but there you are, we can’t be good at everything, we can’t know how to do everything, all of it, that’s what I tell the social worker till I’m blue in the face.”

One of the quotes on the books matching bookmark mentions that though not a thriller this book does read as one and that’s a very true statement. I can’t think of many books where the atmosphere and intensity of the novel come off the page so instantly and leave you to read on even if you aren’t sure you want to. I shall say no more but if you have read the book email me as I am desperate to have a chat with someone else who has finished it.

I know there are some people out there who think that if you don’t have children then you can’t relate to tales about mother’s (or father’s) feelings for their child or children. I think that’s a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that’s the wonder of books. Olmi is just such a writer who put me into the mind of a mother thinking of her and her children’s lives and left me rather an emotional wreck and not any books can leave me almost feeling physically winded.

A compelling book from an author whose entire back catalogue of work I hope will get translated. I would be the first in the queue to read anything of hers that comes out in English in the future, or I will just have to learn fluent French if not, that’s how good this is. It has also made me very keen to see what Peirene Press (a new independent and rather lovely publisher who kindly sent me this) has coming out in the future. This is a Savidge Reads must read book.

P.S I did mean to write more about how this was a wondrous start to ‘Lost in Translation’ and about Peirene Press, but the book has left me so stunned and slightly shaken that I need to go and sit and just be with people and noise for a bit before I can say anymore.

33 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Peirene Press, Review, Véronique Olmi

33 responses to “Beside The Sea – Véronique Olmi

  1. gaskella

    Everyone who has written about this book has recommended it, despite it being rather dark – it’s on my pile to read soon too.

  2. Wow this sounds like an amazing and moving read. Great review.

  3. High praise indeed! And certainly touches on a lot of issues that I think are important, if very complex. Great review, I am taking the recommendation on board and adding it to my wishlist.

    Happy Easter!

  4. Sounds as if you were deeply impressed with this one. It sounds fascinating to me and one I’ll definitely look out for. Glad you didn’t give too much away, I don’t think you have to to write a brilliant review like this.

    • Not just impressed me but also marked me in some ways too I would say I dont think this book is going to leave me for quite some time. I think everyone should try and give this a read.

  5. Happy Easter Monday, Simon! Now you certainly have piqued my interest about this novel. I love books that seem to start all cheery and then develop into something totally unexpected. I guess that’s why I love Ian McEwan so much. (With a McEwan novel in your hands, you just know that something bad is going to happen.)

    All that secrecy about what happens in the latter part of Beside the Sea somehow reminds me of Little Bee (titled The Other Hand in the UK). People just won’t tell me what’s it about. They just kept saying, “You have to read this. You have to read this!” I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this novel.

    • This book is very much a book that fairly instantly lets you know that it won’t be too cheery. You have the excitement of the trip almost instantly with hints of something, not depressing or dark, just ot quite right going on at the same time.

      I wouldnt compare this book to Little Bee, I think Little Bee is a walk in the park compared to this novel. Little Bee was also massively marketed on the twist or the overall story being shrouded and this one isn’t at all.

  6. Did Simon T review this? It sounds very familiar; thank you for reminding me of it. Between what I recall of the other review and this one, I think I’ve figured out what happens and can imagine exactly how devastating this book is.

    Enjoy your bank holiday.

    • He did indeed and I think that DGR did as well so its had little mentions here and there which is good to see, as its very deserving of any attention it gets and I hope it will become a something of a cult classic.

  7. Oooh, don’t you love books that shake you up like this. That’s the best part about reading — taking you into uncharted territory and giving you a bit of a shock now and then. I take it the author is French? I will have to look it up. Thanks for the review.

    • The author is indeed French and the translation is marvellous which I should have mentioned in my review of the book.

      I do love the shaking up and shock of books and am always mystified when people read some reviews and then say ‘oh no I couldnt put myself through that’. Reading should be challenging, shocking and provoking now and again in my humble opinion.

  8. It is good, isn’t it? Not at all what I expected, but very powerful. I think it might be even more powerful when read by someone with children the age of those in the book, but I agree with you that it isn’t *only* parents who can be affected by this book – as evinced by me and you!

  9. Oh my — you sold me! I have somehow been under a rock as this is the first time I have heard of this book, but with such claims as: I think that’s a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that’s the wonder of books — I absolutely MUST read this book!

    • I dont think its being stuck under a rock that means you missed it, its not become very well known (yet) and its thanks to this small independent publisher that many more people will be able to get to read it now.

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  15. I just finished this. Intense is right. I felt I had to write about it right away while it was still vivid in my mind. Totally agree that this book forces you to read on when you don’t want to – part of that was Olmi’s rambling prose, which sort of pushes you along. But what I found most unnerving was how relatable this woman was.

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  20. Shawn

    Your review and Dove Grey’s convinced me, and the fact that the book was a best seller in France. This book is dark from the first page, the first sentence practically. But you have to read on—why are they leaving in the dead of night, why doesn’t she want people to them leave? Those questions, along with the narrator’s compelling style, force you to continue. You can’t escape the darkness, nor can they. Even though she was spinning further and further out of control, and despite the clues along the way that there would be a finality to it all, I didn’t expect quite that ending, and yet I wasn’t surprised. Nor did I find it “one of the saddest endings” as Dove Grey wrote. It’s a nuance, but I find helplessness not sad, but tragic, and that’s what it was. She was helpless in the grasp of her mental illness, as were her sons. It takes awhile to get away from the darkness of this book and it didn’t help that the weekend I read it was rainy, foggy, cold, windy. But reading this book on a sunny summer day wouldn’t work either. So, thank you for the recommendation. I think.

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