November 2012

Alison Barker

fiction

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter

When award-winning French dramatist Véronique Olmi stumbled upon the newspaper headline "MOTHER KILLS CHILDREN AFTER TAKING THEM TO FAIR AND BUYING THEM SOME CHIPS," she embarked on a monstrous challenge: to humanize a woman who kills her own children. The result was her debut novella, a slim first-person narrative of a mother who brings sons Kevin and Stan to a seaside town. She buys them hot chocolate and they go to a carnival. Then she smothers them in their hotel room bed. From the first page, the book progresses like a Greek tragedy, careening assuredly and heavily toward its fate.

The surprise isn't the grisly ending, for within the first two pages, you're a stowaway in the narrator's headspace, and she's a sinking ship: she's careful to tell us that no one observes her as she ushers her two sons, five and nine, onto a bus for an impromptu nighttime trip to the seaside in the middle of the school week, and her eldest son, Stan, shoots her suspicious glares, she says, very much like the ones he gives her when she sits on the kitchen floor for hours, refusing to speak.

There's no such thing as a spoiler alert for Beside the Sea: this family of three is isolated and debilitated by a mother who can't psychologically cohere; her two children will be the innocent victims. Olmi wants us to understand mental illness beyond generalizations of "disturbed" or "depressed" and see the ways that a compulsive, catastrophic thought disorder perverts even the most human of instincts: that of a mother to care for her children. The triumph is that we see the humanity in this situation, even though we may not care deeply about the narrator as a person -- she's too far gone in her psychosis.

The Independent lauds the novel's ability to "enlarge the reader's sympathies" in its cover blurb, yet doesn't explain who or what the object of our sympathies should be; I did not find it for the mother, and sympathy is too paltry a sentiment for the two boys. This is less a portrait about the narrator than it is a portrait of her illness, and Olmi has us rooting not for the mother, but for the eldest son, nine-year-old Stan. Though he is beset by his mother's inability to truly see him, he persists in building a self -- he shows emotional independence from his mother's neglect and outbursts, and tirelessly seeks knowledge about the outside world from sources other than her. Perhaps the sympathy, then, is for the untreated psychosis.

When the narrator complains that Stan focuses more on what his teacher tells him to do and disregards her authority, she rants about feeling belittled, but the attentive reader sees that Stan has (rightfully) placed his trust in a more competent adult role model than his mother.

I've noticed how kids love doing what they're told, what everyone else is doing. Sometimes Stan even lays it on a bit, saying things like We have to brush our teeth after every meal... my teacher said it. God, you wouldn't believe the power they have, those teachers, they could make them eat anything, they could tell them to walk on their hands and for sure there'd be no more spending a fortune on shoes!

When the narrator complains that Stan leaves her and enters a faraway world when he disappears into the books he reads, she feels he's exhibiting her tendency to detach from reality, but the reader can understand that reading is a healthy escape for Stan, and one that builds self-reliance. She is agitated when Stan refuses to go along with her fantasy that the small tin of coins she's brought to the seashore is adequate. She wants to shield her boys from the despair of poverty and cruelty, but she can't do it by giving them the tools to succeed. Again, the reader knows that Stan's understanding of money shows that he can and will survive his mother's delusions -- if she could only let him.

Stan hits her when she tries to pull on him to leave the beach, and the narrator wonders, "Was it already too late?" The way he defies her, and the way he "walked along that beach like he was used to it" unnerves her because she sees Stan's growing selfhood as a betrayal, and his assimilation into the world and himself means he is becoming part of the cruel world. "How could he cope so well without me?" she asks in disbelief. The narrator's distorted fear and cyclical thoughts that weigh upon her offer her one solution to this problem: to permanently prevent her sons from entering the world, which is the grim solution that she obliquely refers to throughout their weekend until she acts on it at the end.

We can draw conclusions about Stan's resiliency that the storyteller cannot. Stan's last act is a simple but powerful statement of his needs: "I'd like to go home, he said very gently." Once they are in the hotel, Stan reveals that he has taught Kevin to "wee-wee" standing up; Stan is trying to help Kevin, who is still intensely attached to his mother, become more independent, too. And accordingly, Stan's self-reliance confounds her. Bullies at school, who demand his lunch money, constantly beat him, but he never gives in to them. She admits that he didn't learn the resilience from her. In fact, she isn't quite sure who she is, or what she teaches her sons. This insecurity shapes how she sees everything, even the sea: "I couldn't help looking at it... wanted to be like it, self-contained, not giving a damn about anything and taking up as much space as I liked."  

She spends her days wishing for "someone to see me." She cannot see herself, so how could she accurately see her sons? Her sense of self is defined by her intense attachment to her children, and her worries frequently become so catastrophic and paralyzing that she ends up (ominously) wishing that her children could stay exactly as they are, because she cannot tolerate or understand any sort of change. Insomnia exacerbates her condition, and guarantees that she is out of sync with the routines her children need her to follow. Just getting enough sleep at night is a frightening ordeal: "Shame sleep has two sides to it: it's a way of forgetting but also a threat." She describes her worrying as if "something's been lowered onto me... like someone sitting on me, that's it. No one even notices I'm here."

First published in France as Bord de Mer in 2001, the book was an immediate bestseller in Europe. In 2006, Adriana Hunter came across the novella and was mesmerized by Olmi's ear for spoken language, and the way she was able to avoid sensationalizing the mother's act. Hunter began the project on her own, without any commission or guarantee of English language publication. She eventually succeeded in securing English publication in 2010 with Peirene Press in the U.K., and won the Scott Montcrieff Prize in 2011 for her translation. This month Tin House publishes the novella's debut in the United States, just months after the stage adaptation debuted at London's Southbank Centre this past spring. Véronique Olmi won the Prix Alain-Fournier emerging artist award for the novella, and she has since published four books.

It's no surprise that Olmi has spent the bulk of her artistic career in the theater: she chooses specific, vivid behaviors in each character that speak volumes about personality and power struggles within the small family unit. We learn that her sons' fathers are different men, with whom she had little interaction, and we know that she gets medicine (which she's stopped taking) and some therapy from a health center. But these expository details fade into the woodwork of her cadence. The point here is to feel just how fruitless the battle with psychosis is, and how as the story progresses, she misreads evidence of her boys growing into their own personalities as evidence that she is losing the battle: "I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother's son, exactly when he became unrecognizable, I mean: just like the others. Exactly when?"  

What's so heartbreaking is that the narrator is at some level aware of her thought disorder: though she doesn't state her diagnosis, she describes the "spinning" and "jostling" feelings that are a prelude to the "terrible thoughts" that sit upon her heavily at night, keeping her locked in insomnia. She says she's always been "slipping through things" in life, and everyone -- even her children at times -- antagonize her with their repeated admonishments to "reason with yourself." She tries, but she can't, and so well-meaning advice feels like condemnation to her.

You want it to end, so you can put distance between yourself and the narrator's losing battle, but when you realize, with horror, what you are inadvertently wishing would hurry up and happen in the narrative -- the death of two innocent children -- you're stuck again in a tight, airless spot. Before you know it, you're implicated in what this mother is about to do to her two sons, after a dizzying trip to a carnival where she zones out and can't seem to stay engaged long enough to watch her sons ride the rides. The narrator herself puts her finger on it when she recognizes the hotel manager's hesitation to speak to her: perhaps her despair is catching -- "maybe he was frightened I'd splatter him." The reader's sympathies for mental anguish are enlarged because the narrator's worries are a contagion, and you cannot help realizing that to prevent tragedies like this one, you have to look at the complexities of psychosis instead of distancing yourself from the mother's battle or villianizing her, which Olmi does not allow you to do. She is not a villain, and she is not sympathetic: she is dreadfully human.

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter
Tin House Books
ISBN: 978-1935639428
110 pages