As mentioned earlier in the week, this week I am going to review three works from Peirene Press as part of my female reading for “Women In Translation Month”. To date eight of Peirene Press’ eighteen published titles have been written by female writers, and in 2016 two of the three releases are written by women so 50/50 representation here, a great result when you look at some other publishers and their lack of female representation.
Next year they are releasing “Her Father’s Daughter” by French author Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter) and “The Empress and the Cake” by Austrian writer Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bulloch). Translator Adriana Hunter translated Peirene Press’ first ever release, the work I look at today, Véronique Olmi’s “Beside The Sea”.
Don’t let the title fool you into thinking this is a nice seaside story, one of “sea change” tales of endless blue skies, soft sands, rolling waves, romance and finding one’s self in a new open environment. There are family seaside snacks, local fairs, sand castles and waves but not as you’d expect. For starters there is no sunshine; the weather is grim from the start, with incessant rain:
The next day was really bad luck, it was raining again. Apart from the dim morning light it was hard not getting day and night confused in that town. There wasn’t much room for the light, no one had arranged for it, you could tell that right away. I don’t know what the time was when I woke, but the kids were already up, there were by the window having a raindrop race: they each chose one at the top of the pane and the first to reach the bottom was the winner.
I wondered what they could see through the window, what the rain was hiding.
Our novella starts with a night-time bus trip, the last bus out of town, towards the sea, for our first person narrator and her two children Stan and Kevin. We know right from the start that this is their first, and last, ever trip, even including holidays.
A bleak scene slowly builds to be even bleaker as everything deteriorates, even the weather, and as a reader we learn more and more about our narrator, the evidence of a broken single mother starts to become compelling as we learn of simple things, like the children having to carry the bags “because ever since I broke my collar bone I’ve had trouble carrying stuff.”
As the dark undertones build your mind starts racing towards a horrendous conclusion, a predetermined reason why this will be the last ever trip by this family. Our narrator’s world is thoroughly BLACK, it is dark, it is doomed, every waking hour is a struggle, and how on earth can you let your own children loose into a place as desolate as her own world? When the only shining light in your day is your kids, how can you let them grow in a place that’s barren of warmth, love, affection?
That’s how I should have spent the rest of my days, in bed with my kids, we could have watched the world the way you watch telly: from a distance, without getting dirty, holding on to the remote, we’d have switched the world off as soon as it fucked up.
Our book captures the darkness of depression, the mark of “black-dog” the depths of despair for sufferers and does it in such a sympathetic tone, that as a reader you want to reach out and rescue this woman. The treatment meted out by strangers, the clinging to hope by the innocent children, forced to grow up too soon, the poverty and attempts at trying to instil some dignity all build and build until you hope the pre determined conclusion is not a reality. “Page turner” that’s what a short Amazon blurb should read!
It’s not often you come across sad works, depressing books that are at the same time engaging , the ones that come to mind generally include substance abuse as well for example “Even The Dogs” by Jon McGregor, but here we have a thoroughly wretched story that you can’t avoid reading.
If you want a portrait of a single mother suffering depression look no further, this is the one character study you should pick up, I promise you’ll be impacted.
As an aside, Peirene Press donate 50 pence from the cover price of £8.99 to the Maya Centre, an organisation who provides long term counselling and psychological support to some of the most vulnerable women in the British community, victims of domestic violence, childhood abuse, even war and conflict. They provide a service for women who do not have access to other options, free of charge. So even purchasing this book helps, in a small way, the realities that the work addresses.
Next up in my week of Peirene Press reviews, something completely different, the Finnish “Herra Darwinin puutarhuri” (‘Mr Darwin’s Gardener” by Kristina Carlson).