2010 Books in Translation Novella Recommended books

Beside the Sea – Veronique Olmi

 Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Beside the Sea is the best book I have read in a long time. It tells the story of a single mother who wants to ensure her two little boys enjoy a holiday by the sea.

Beside the Sea has the most intense narrative I have ever read. The words pull you in, leading you towards an ending that you know will be devastating. A dark sense of foreboding dominates the text, but when I finally reached the conclusion it was far more poignant than I could ever imagine.

Not much happens in this book. Regular readers of my blog will know that this is normally a very bad thing for me, but in the hands of such a fantastic writer this didn’t matter; the ordinary was given an emotional dimension and made to come alive.

In fact, the kids are frightened of other people. I can’t fault them for that. You’re never what they want you to be. You irritate them, disgust them. The whole world’s disappointed by its neighbours. Sometimes, no one knows why, someone exactly matches what everyone expected. And everybody loves them, they cheer them and put them on the telly. It’s very rare. The rest of the human race is all mistrust and hate, what I mean is love’s nothing like as common as hate.

The simple descriptions of taking two little boys to a hotel or out for a hot chocolate were amazingly accurate, perfectly capturing the behaviour of two brothers. I think the fact that I have two little boys meant that this book had a far greater impact on me. I have had similar experinces of loving them, but at the same time being frustrated by their behaviour.

Beside the Sea is just over 100 pages long, but the effects of reading this book will last far longer than the short time it takes to finish. Those little boys touched my heart and just thinking about them brings tears to my eyes. 

I will remember this book for the rest of my life.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes books that provoke an emotional response.

Everyone seems to love this book:

I can’t think of many books where the atmosphere and intensity of the novel come off the page so instantly. Savidge Reads

I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it… Dove Grey Reader

However, I still found the ending so powerful, so intense and so quietly devastating that I’m still thinking about it a week down the line… Reading Matters

Have I managed to persuade you to read it?

What is the most intense book you have ever read?



77 replies on “Beside the Sea – Veronique Olmi”

You have certainly persuaded me to read it. In fact I will head to Waterstone’s in a few minutes to get hold of it.

Oddly, one of the top 5 most intense narratives I have ever read is Marie Darrieussecq’s Mal de Mer (Breathing underwater is the title in translation) which is also a 100-page book about a mother who takes her child to the sea, and has a similar sense of foreboding, and mystery (in many ways reminiscent I found of Rebecca), and leaves you utterly punched in the solar plexus and at the same time stunned by its beauty.

The most intense narration I have ever come across without a shadow of a doubt is Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, an almost unbearably claustrophobic and heartbreaking tale of a middle-aged woman’s attempts to escape the psychological and, increasingly, physical clutches of her mother.

I would recommend both these books not only to any readers but to everyone who wants to write seriously about the human condition.

Stu, I’ve had a very French year too. I’ve just counted and discovered this is my 5th French read of the year. It is actually the first French book I’ve ever enjoyed, so I’m really pleased that I didn’t give up on the country!

Great enthused review Jackie, and thank you for including a quote of mine, very kind. I loved this book and was bowled over by the power behind it. I ahve teh next Peirene to read soon and will be itrigued to see if it has the power behind it that this one did. It’s a very exciting new publishing independent either way!

Most impressed this did it for you, as you mention its not a book you would normally love but I am yet to hear of anyone who didn’t think this book was amazing.

Simon, The second Periene book sounded even more like something I’d not enjoy. I initially decided I wouldn’t read it, but I think this publisher has an eye for a fantastic book and so I’m going to give it a go. I hope I enjoy it half as much as this one.

Jackie, you’ve done it again! When you love a book, you really love it, and make it next to impossible to not to run out and get it immediately. See, this is what happens with my Kindle! I know if I write this down on a list, it will be forgotten. An impactful, 100 page book I can certainly handle!

Sandy, I’m really pleased that my passion for a great book comes across. At least this one is short and so shouldn’t take too long to read. Enjoy!

Ooooh no, this is one where we disagree. It was a good book, definitely, but how can you love something with such an awful premise?! It’s a bit like This is how isn’t it – a very good book but dealing with something horrendous.

Verity, There were a lot of similarities between this book and This is How. I think the comment below by Dan sums up the reason why I didn’t love This is How to the same extent. This is How was far too long and so didn’t have the same emotional impact. I ended up feeling a vague sadness while reading This is How. Beside the Sea was a powerful shock to the system – it didn’t linger long enough to really depress me. It just left me with a vivid, thought provoking image of how terrible life was for that simgle mother.

I’m afraid that I prefer my books to deal with horrendous subjects!

I took an early lunch hour to buy the book I was so keen to get hold of it, and have devoured a fair chunk on the bus back to the office.

I wanted to add another recommendation, by an author I am lucky enough to know – Babylon by Daisy Anne Gree, the story of a young man who leaves the city where his life has gone wrong in search of peace in the tiny desert town of Babylon where he grew up, only to find himself sowly sinking into madness.

It was once I’d noted three of my top “intense” reads, and seen Beside the sea that I wondered whether anyone has an opinion on how long an intense read like this could be. none of these books is over 200 pages, and I wonder if intensity, sustained too long, would a) not be possible and b) begin to lose its focus quicker than it could build it.

Dan, Wow! I’m impressed by the speed you got a copy 🙂 I look forward to seeing what you think of it.

I agree with you about the length of these intense reads. I mentioned in my comment to Verity that this book had a lot of similarities to This is How by M.J Hyland, but that book had 300+ pages and so it couldn’t keep up the emotional momentum. I don’t think I could read a book like that for too long as I think it would lose the power as the length increases. It would be interesting to see what the maximum length for a book like this could be.

lizzysiddal, I heard amazing things about The Lizard Cage from Caribou’s Mom blog last month. I hope to read it soon – especially now that you say it keeps up the intensity for so long.

The fact that you enjoyed this despite it being light on an actual plot certainly means something to me! It also suggests that the translator did a stellar job if you were so moved by the prose… Hadn’t heard of this one, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it!

Steph, Yes – the translator did a fantastic job. It all felt so natural. I don’t know how it compared to the original as it didn’t feel very French, but if it had retained its French language structure then I wouldn’t have found it anywhere near as powerful.

Simon, I saw that you loved it. It is great to see so many people enjoying this book. Today I have heard about a few people who found it too powerful/disturbing for them to read and I can see why that might be the case – especially if they’ve had children.

Laura, I hope that you manage to find a copy soon. I don’t think it is out in America yet so this might be one you have to get from over here. Good luck!

I’ve not read a bad thing about this book – everyone, including me, seems to think it is wonderful. I loved the second book from Peirene more, so I’ll be fascinated to see what you make of it.

Isn’t it wonderful how a book can have such a profound effect on you, I love books that you can’t stop thinking about for days afterwards. Another one to add to my wishlist! I also have 2 boys so it would be interesting to read it from that common viewpoint.

You have convinced me. I just tried looking for it to download to my Kindle and it isn’t available. I’ll see if I can get it at my library. It’s hard for me to say no to a book that you will never forget.

It wasn’t available on the Kindle and I checked my library, no luck there either. I’m going to check Amazon now. Wish me luck!

It’s coming out here (in Canada) in August – I can wait or order it from the Book Depository, since it’s UK-based. Considering my to-read mountain, maybe it’s good for me to wait 😉

Dear Jackie and everybody-who-has-commented-on-Jackie’s fantastic review,

I am the publisher of Beside the Sea and this amazing response warms my publisher’s heart! Thank you for all your enthusiasm.

I’d like to reply to the couple of points which were raised about the availability of the book. At present Beside the Sea is available in all UK bookstores (including Waterstones,Foyles, etc) and online book sellers, such as, bookdepository, etc. Some libraries here in the UK might already stock it. If not yet, then very shortly, as from next month onwards Peirene will be part of the Reading Partner scheme (which is a collaboration between publishers and public libraries) organised by the reading agency. As for publishing Peirene’s books in e-fomat – I am presently looking into it and hope to be able to publish the texts as e-books soon. As for publication in the US – I am currently looking for a US publisher who would publish and distribute the text over there. In the meantime, all the Peierne books are available for world-wide delivery from the Peirene website directly (payment via PayPal).

Thank you for raising the points about availability. It makes me aware about the needs of potential Peirene readers.

Meike, Thank you for letting us know a bit more about the availability of the book – it is great to know that it will be more readily avaiable in the future.

Thank you for publishing such a wonderful book!

Oh, you’ve definitely sold this one to me, Jackie! Now, my only dilemna is whether to seek it out in the original French or get the translation. I have been very lazy in reading in French since my uni days, apart from newspapers/magazines and at 100 pages it shouldn’t be too much of an ordeal – from the language point of view, that is! Thank you! 🙂

Teresa, The language was quite straight forward, so I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to read in the original French. I think you should read both versions and let me know how they compare 😉

Wow, I love how unequivocal this review is. It’s so nice to get such a simple, heart-felt endorsement when I can tell the book really did move you. Have any other books received the five star honours this year?

Will have to have a think about the most “intense” book question…

Lija, I don’t often award 5 stars. So far this year 5 stars have gone to Rupture by Simon Lelic, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell – all very different books, but perfect examples of their genre.

If you are interested in seeing all my reviews sorted by star rating then go to the ‘books reviewed’ tab in the top right of the blog, then the ‘by rating’ tab or just click here:

Very intriguing Jackie. When you say 5 stars I become really alert ;). I do wonder if I could connect to the book as much as you did, because I don’t have kids.

mee, I think that having children will make this book extra special, but I think that anyone can enjoy this book. The writing is so powerful that you will understand what it is like to look after two children once you’ve read it.

I’ve rarily read such an enthusiastic review written by you. I’ve recently found out about Peirene Press and I sort of already decided that I needed to read both this and Stone in a Landslide, but you managed to make me even more excited about this one!

Bina, I look forward to hearing what the German version is like. I think a translation could make or break this book so I hope the translation does it justice – enjoy!

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