When I fall in love with characters, I’ll finish the book and wish that they would stick around, and oftentimes, they do. Of course, there have been times I did not want a book to close because the ending provided did not fulfill my expectations. Beside the Sea brought to focus a third reason to delay the inevitable, a reason that was both uncomfortable and unfamiliar for me: I saw what would transpire on the first page and I did not want it to happen.
Beside the Sea is the story of a mother who takes her two little boys away from school to see the sea for the first time. Here is the very first paragraph:
We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.
The book continues in this loose, conversational style from the perspective of the mother. The effortless recording of the mother’s chaotic mind earns the oft-quoted Baldwin command: “One condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you‘re writing.” Olmi accomplishes this, and I suspect the translator, Adriana Hunter, is due credit as well. It is hard work for a voice to sound as natural and interesting as the mother’s does.
I couldn’t see how that—the sea—could disappoint us, it’s the same everywhere for everyone and I was perfectly capable of taking my kids to see it, thank you very much, I could travel at night, it’s not true that I’m paralyzed by my anxieties, like they say at the health center.
Her inner monologue never grows stale even with repetitions, and yet never rings untrue. There is a sense of foreboding throughout, but it is not to hit the reader over the head with what will happen. In fact, it is there to provide an authentic map of the mind of a mother who has difficulty dealing in this world.
Now, I’m not about to flat out give away the ending because Updike would be cross with me, but if you’re asking is this book about what I think it’s about? then I would have to reply with a conditional yes because it is, but Beside the Sea also manages to transcend its simple, devastating premise.
I’ve asked myself how I can appreciate and admire a book that showed me its course in the first few pages. Unpredictability is a highly valued, if not necessary component to any good book. Part of the reason Beside the Sea works is because Olmi’s prose is absolutely gorgeous, but more importantly, she creates a tension that is equal parts organic and compelling.
I did not love this mother. She had a way of thinking a lot of things that I could not fathom, but then saying a few things that clarified the rest. She gave me no choice but to see her as a real person who I might sympathize with because I never doubt that she loves her children.
He’s already imitating grownups, I thought, and I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother’s son, exactly when he became unrecognizable, I mean: just like the others. Exactly when?
I did not want her voice to remain with me after this book was over, but I did understand her, and the more I got to know her, the more it became clear that the point of this book wasn’t what was going to happen, but why it was going to happen. If I wanted to know that, I was going to have to enter this woman’s mind. Olmi makes me want to take that step, which is honestly a huge credit to her writing because, if I’m putting all of my cards on the table, I’m a mom, and this book is terrifying.
Beside the Sea, by Véronique Olmi (Translated by Adriana Hunter). Portland, Oregon: Tin House Books, 2012. 110 pages. $12.95, paper.
Louise Henrich has been published by FortyOunceBachelors and Danse Macabre. You can follow her Twitter handle, @louisehenrich. She doesn’t have anything clever to say for this bio, but she tried.