Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

25661177Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. Tin House Books, 2012. Originally published 2001. 110 pgs. Library copy.

Rather than recap the book for myself, I’d like to copy the summary provided by the publisher as I think it best incapsulates the haunting tone of this novella:

“A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.”

From the start, I thought the young mother was a victim of domestic violence attempting to flee with her two sons, Stan and Kevin. The family takes the bus to the seaside at an odd hour and, in her haste, the mother forgot to pack Kevin’s comfort toy.

Other clues about the mother’s life are dropped into the story – she has no teeth; her savings for this trip is a collection of small coins saved from errands; depression overwhelms her to the point where she takes to her bed for days – and a devastating portrait of how mental illness, poverty, and possible abuse can overlap emerges.

“It’s the worrying. I couldn’t tell you what about. It’s like something’s been lowered onto me . . . like someone sitting on me, that’s it. No one even notices I’m here. They sit down on me like sitting on a bench. I’d like to get up, stand up, thrash and scream. Nothing doing. They keep on sitting there. How can anyone understand that? I’m being smothered at night.”

Yet, Olmi keeps her cards close to her chest, never quite constructing a clear picture of the young mother’s past. This escalates the feeling of pity for the woman; I wanted so badly for her trip to the seashore with her sons to go well since it seems nothing else in her life does.

I was so wrapped up in my feeling of pity towards the mother that the ending was shocking and breathtaking. Given the summary highlighted at the start of this post, it is clear Olmi’s novella will take a sinister tone along the way, and a sense of doom lingers from the moment the reader is introduced to the mother and her children on the bus.

I thought I knew and understood this woman, but then she takes an action that rocked me and completely upended my view of this novella. It’s not a book I’ll be able to read again – the shock of the ending being so important to the story’s tale – but it is one that I’m unlikely to ever forget.  

Note: Olmi’s book was translated to English in 2010 by Peirene Press as their very first publication, which is how the book came to my attention. My library’s copy was published two years later by a different publishing house, but the translator is the same for both editions.


  1. Ti

    I can guess at what happens at the end and if my guess is right I don’t want to read it. It does sound very dark. But those brief bits you shared are so compelling though.


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