On with the first book! Beside the Sea was originally published in France and is the story of an unnamed mother struggling to cope with life. She has two young sons but is slowly slipping further into the grasp of mental illness. She can't organise herself to get her boys to school on time, often sleeps through the day, is unable to budget her benefit money to provide food and other essentials, is consumed with paranoia and can spend hours staring into space, doing nothing at all. Social services, health visitors and psychiatrists are involved but the mother isn't feeling any better. She decides to use all the money she has left for one last trip to the seaside with her boys, to make sandcastles and visit a funfair. But the weather is bad, the town is muddy and the shopkeepers aren't pleased with her selection of small change. She wants to keep her boys safe, but at what cost?
Beside the Sea is an incredibly powerful book. I finished it a few days ago and still the events of the story are running through my mind. The ending itself is rather predictable but that doesn't take away from the emotional punch you get as you read the last sections. Beside the Sea was especially powerful for me as I am a primary school teacher who teaches in inner London and I've met many parents that are at least partly like the mother in the story, completely unable to cope with life for whatever reason. In one passage, the mother is discussing her son's teacher, Marie-Helene, and it was eerily familiar;
"she's always asking questions, Why hasn't he got his plimsolls for gym? What time does he go to bed because he's falling asleep in lessons?" p28
I've had that exact conversation many times and that's probably the reason why I engaged with this book so much. Be it mental illness or their own backgrounds, there are so many mothers like Olmi's out there and I was blown away by how well Olmi got under the skin of her character, by how well she exposed her thought processes. Even though as a reader you can see the consequences on her two children, especially the oldest, Stan, who is trying to mother his own mother, you can't help but feel sorry for the unnamed narrator. People are trying to help her but no one is addressing the root cause of her problems, that she can't cope with herself, let alone two children;
"I couldn't spend a full day on my feet, doing this and that, being friendly, polite and happy, no, I wouldn't make it through a whole day with my eyes open." p60
As I was reading the book, I kept thinking 'what could have prevented the ending from happening?' I'm willing to bet the mother would have already had the whole gamut of help from social services, including parenting classes and counselling and everything they could offer, and with no prior history of harm, her children were probably considered to be at low risk. How many parents like her are truly out there? If you've had inadequate parenting how you can truly parent well yourself? What can we do to help? Why do people look the other way from these kinds of social issues? Beside the Sea is a powerful book that raises more questions than it answers and I'm glad that I took the time to read it.
Source: From Peirene, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2001, France
My Edition: 2010
Score: 5 out of 5