This is the launch title of Peirene Press, a new publisher specialising in English translations of short European works. And what a book to begin with. Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, first published in France in 2001, and now available in Adriana Hunter’s superlative translation, is the story of a single mother taking her two sons to a seaside town. But all is not as happy as it sounds. Here is how Beside the Sea begins:
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. (9)
Ordinary enough details, but with dark undertones — why leave so furtively? Why dwell on the unfinished jam? Even in this first paragraph, the seeds of the ending are sown, but the power of Beside the Sea lies in how the journey unfolds. Olmi gradually reveals just how fragile is her protagonist’s psyche: the narrator is a woman ill at ease with the world, reluctant to engage with other people, simultaneously protective of her children and at times uneasy around them.
Reading this character’s story is an intense, discomforting experience; her words spill out in a torrent of clauses, pushing inexorably on to the conclusion, which has no less impact for being anticipated (and may actually have more). Beside the Sea is a superb character study that marks out Peirene Press as a publisher to follow. Recommended.