Thursday 29 November 2012

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

Next World Novella is the first book in the Peirene series on Male Dilemmas: The Quest for Intimacy (I have previously reviewed all of the novellas in the Female Voices series; Beside the SeaStone in a Landslide and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman). Hinrich Schepp is an ageing academic in a seemingly happy relationship with wife Doro. He enters their apartment to find her editing one of his manuscripts, a regular occurence.  But things aren't as they always are - Doro has passed away and the manuscript she was editing was Hinrich's long abandoned attempt at a fiction novel.  Using the disguise of story, Hinrich has revealed much about the past and he is shocked by Doro's alterations as they show she knows more than he ever realised.  Sitting down next to her corpse to read, Hinrich has to face up to his past and the disintegration of his superficially happy marriage.

I really enjoyed Next World Novella, more than I expected to.  I loved the wry voice of the author, the black humour and the macabre tone that pervaded the whole book.  There are many details of death included, giving the novella a gothic feel that appealed to me.  Politycki is clever in that he guides you to judge and poke fun at Hinrich but at the same time you can't help but feel sorry for him.  One moment you're judging him for fantasising about attractive waitresses within a few minutes of discovering his wife's corpse and the next you want to stop him from embarrassing himself with his clumsy attempts at an extramarital affair that have you cringing.

Hinrich traces the decline of his marriage to an operation he had to improve his vision; "It was terrible to see the world in such detail, so sharply outlined, all of a sudden!  It dazzled him with a confusingly large number of details". In a sense, this is a metaphor for the whole story.  Hinrich and Doro's marriage looks happy if you only look at it quickly, or not thoroughly.  As soon as you start to dig deeper, the misery becomes apparent.  The majority of the novel is narrated from Hinrich's point of view and it's black comedy at it's best but doesn't elicit too much emotion.  However, the final part is Doro's editorial opinion on the manuscript and this is the heart of the novel.  I had been reading along, poking fun at Hinrich whilst secretly pitying him and I simply wasn't expecting the emotional punch of Doro's words.  It's easy to forget the impact that one person's actions can have on another.  Including Doro's voice at the end made the novella cohesive and more powerful than Hinrich's narration alone could have been.

Putting aside the death and descriptions of the decay of Doro's corpse, Next World Novella will ring true for a lot of readers.  It's easy to ignore slow but serious decline in our personal relationships and it's often only when you look back that you realise how far things have gone.  Hinrich and Doro never found the relationships they were hoping for and both suffered with a lonlieness that must be very common.  The mix of this serious theme and the hints of comedy really worked for me.  It's one of my favourite Peirene novellas so far and will be hard to beat.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Edition: Peirene Press, 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday 25 November 2012

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

As a certified nosy person, I'm a sucker for employment memoirs;  I will happily sit and read about life as a doctor, nurse, vet, explorer, retail assistant - in fact I will read about anything that is different from what I do myself.  So I was excited to request Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality from Netgalley.  In it, Tomsky details his rise through the hotel industry from valet parking through to front desk manager.  Having worked many jobs within the industry, Tomsky is in the perfect position to detail what life as a hotel worker is really like and to give insider information for potential guests keen on upgrades and other perks.

Heads in Beds was very good light relief and I enjoyed reading it.  I'm not a frequent hotel user, but I've checked into enough hotels to recognise lots of the situations detailed in the book.  As always, I was shocked by how inconsiderate and rude members of the public can be towards service staff.  Tomsky does come across as a bit angry in places, but having worked in retail myself (thankfully, many years ago now!), I'm sure that this anger was justified.  There's only so long you can take being treated like the dirt on someone's shoe before you want to snap!  There are mentions of polite customers and good experiences but these become less frequent as the book goes on and Tomsky becomes more disillusioned with his job.  It's safe to say I won't be applying to be a front desk operator any time soon!

One thing I found very interesting was the comparison between the two main hotels Tomsky worked in, luxury hotels in New Orleans and New York.  In New Orleans, the staff were valued and trusted and consequently often went above and beyond in order to provide good service to their guests.  In New York, they were constantly monitored for any slip up, treated as if they were slackers and initiative was punished rather than rewarded.  This led to resentment and poor service, with no one willing to go the extra mile.  Even though Tomsky is writing specifically about the hotel industry in Heads in Beds, I've seen this kind of thing in every single working environment I have been in.  When will managers learn that staff work better if you trust them, value them and simply leave them to it?

Heads in Beds was on the whole clearly written with lots of humour.  It didn't set my world alight, but I found it interesting and enjoyable.  I think it could have benefited from being edited down slightly as it dragged in the later sections, with too much page time being devoted to Tomsky's time as a front desk operator.  I'm sure that fellow nosy readers will enjoy this book as much as I did!

Source: From the publisher via Netgalley
Publication Date: 20th November 2012
Score: 3 out of 5

Thursday 22 November 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Summary from the back cover:
It is 1851, and a lust for gold has swept the American frontier.  Two brothers - the notorious Eli and Charlie Sisters - are on the road to California, following the trail of an elusive prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm.  On this odyssey Eli and his brother cross paths with a remarkable cast of characters - losers, cheaters and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life - and Eli begins to question what he does for a living, and whom he does it for. (I don't normally copy summaries, but this one is perfect).

I went into this book expecting to enjoy it because of all the hype around it and the positive reviews I have seen, but I didn't expect to enjoy the Western element as much as I did.  I've never read a Western before and I'm not American so I was surprised at how natural the reading experience was.  I loved the grimy, cockroach infested hotels the brothers stayed in with prostitutes at the ready and men having shoot-outs in the dust.  I loved the idea of burying gold dust and busting mafia-style crime rings.  I have some adventure in my spirit and anyone who does will enjoy the Western elements of The Sisters Brothers.  DeWitt balanced all of this rip-roaring, swash-buckling adventure by also showing the harshness of life on the frontier in 1851, not shying away from the nastier elements and this gave the novel some much-needed grit and realism.

I remember there was a lot of fuss about this book being included on the Booker short-list in 2011, with critics complaining that it's not literary enough.  But I disagree; The Sisters Brothers is genre fiction, but it also transcends the genre and has a lot to say about human existence.  Whereas Charlie is more of a straight-forward villain, Eli is a sympathetic character who has drifted into the killing business under the influence his big brother.  He may be a contract killer, but he doesn't think much of money and dreams of giving it all up to open his own shop (Charlie wants to be the kind of gangster who gets to run a whole town).  He's a romantic who falls in love easily and who won't abandon his horse when it is injured.  Eli is the heart of the novel and through him DeWitt manages to make the book both funny, adventurous and sad.  As the reader can see that Eli is essentially a good guy, all the way through the book you are rooting for him to be able to have the courage to leave Charlie and do something just for himself.  He has some big disappointments towards the end of the novel and I was genuinely sad for him.  I wasn't expecting Eli to be the character he was and it made the book so much more powerful and, dare I say it, literary.

The Sisters Brothers was one of those books I bought because it was on a short-list and because plenty of people seemed to enjoy reading it.  I'm glad I did, because it's something I would never have picked out for myself and I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it.  Recommended even for Western newbies like me.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
My Edition: Granta, 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Friday 16 November 2012

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices.  It's an unusually structured book that takes the reader into the mind of Margarethe, a twenty-one year old German woman living in Rome in 1943, who is walking from the boarding house where she lives to a Bach concert being held at the church on Via Sicilia.  Having followed her husband to Rome only to see him shipped off to Africa to help the war effort, Margarethe is alone and eight months pregnant.  She speaks little Italian and is both mystified by and scared of Rome, the city of their Italian allies.  As we follow Margarethe on her walk, we get an insight into her thought processes and get to see World War Two through a new lens.

I liked this book.  I found the structure difficult at first; the book is basically one long sentence with no full stops or page breaks and this was challenging for me.  I didn't know when to put the book down and the lack of punctuation made the novella feel longer than it was.  The pace was also fairly slow towards the beginning and these two factors combined made reading heavy going initially.  But as soon as I settled into the book and saw it for what it was, a character driven novel, I started to enjoy it.  The pace is slow but this allows the character to get really under your skin and this is how Portrait of the Mother is effective.

I had mixed feelings about the main character, Margarethe.  She was expertly written and I'm in awe at how the male author managed to get so into the mind of a young, pregnant woman. On the one hand I couldn't help but empathise with her situation, alone and unsure in a foreign city, struggling to keep her composure.  I admired how she constantly battled to remain positive, to appreciate all she had rather than give in to fear, because I don't know if I could do the same.  You can't help but feel sorry for her when you read about her wishing that her husband's leg wound would worsen so he could have treatment at a Roman hospital and they could be reunited.  But at the same time, I found her very naive.  To protect herself she has drawn a shell around herself and tries not to think of politics and the war.  Although she never articulates it fully, her views from her time in the Hitler Youth contradict with her religious views and she has severe doubts about the directions Hitler is taking.  But she does nothing, she has completely detached herself;

"Even in Germany she had not read the papers, it was better not to know too much, not to say too much, not to ask too much, as one always heard bad news soon enough."

There must have been many people like Margarethe but this side of her made me have very mixed feelings towards her.  I suspect this is what Delius intended and that this is part of what makes the book so effective, but it challenges you as a reader.  To empathise and not at the same time.  After finishing this book, I'm still not quite sure what I think about the main character.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the Peirene book that I've found the hardest going so far, mainly because of the structure.  It's without a doubt beautifully written and thought-provoking but I don't know if I would describe reading it as an enjoyable experience.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published in the UK: 2010
First Published in Germany: 2006
Score: 3 out of 5

Thursday 15 November 2012

My Nephew!

Blogging has gone out of the window this week because on Tuesday I became an aunt for the first time!  My sister had a baby boy, Joseph, and he is simply the most precious thing in the entire world.  So instead of blogging I've been waiting for good news, buying baby clothes, visiting the hospital, blowing up balloons and getting in my first cuddle.  He may only be days old but he already has the entire family wrapped around his little finger!

Tom and I with Joseph.

Normal service will resume shortly!

Monday 12 November 2012

Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon

Mermaid is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Little Mermaid (you can read the original here).  Lenia is the youngest sister of five mermaid princesses who are granted just one day to travel to the surface and observe what the world is like for humans.  On her eighteenth birthday, she takes her opportunity but gets caught up in a ferocious storm and can't resist rescuing the Prince of the Southern Kingdom.  Taking him to the beach, she leaves him in the care of Princess Margrethe, daughter of the war-hungry King of the Northern Kingdom.  Unable to put him from her mind and drawn to ideas of a human soul, Lenia sacrifices her tail and tongue in order to become a human, enduring agonising pain.  But is her sacrifice worth it?

Mermaid is on the whole a faithful retelling of the original fairy tale, so consequently much darker than the Disney version!  The main difference is that the role of the 'other woman', Princess Margrethe, is greatly expanded, to the extent that the chapters alternate between Margrethe and Lenia's points of view.  However, Margarethe feels much more like a modern invention than Lenia, which can be a bit jarring. Despite these differences, Turgeon is successful at capturing the gothic, slightly creepy, slightly magical atmosphere of the original.  The world she creates is one where it seems natural that mermaids exist and souls float to the heavens.  There's a dark undercurrent of pain and suffering throughout the whole story which fits with Andersen too.

As this is a fairy tale, it's acceptable that the characters do things that you would never do in real life.  There's a lot of love at first sight and much sacrifice for someone who doesn't seem worth it (I'm looking at you, Prince!).  If this was a normal story, I'd have a big problem with Lenia's actions and how easily she gave up everything she had ever known, but I didn't mind it in the context of the original story.  In fact, the only thing I really had an issue with was the ending; I felt as though it was too happy.  The last sections seem to build up to a dark, depressing end but then there's a last minute reprieve and it felt like a cop-out.  Andersen never shied away from unhappy endings, so it's a shame that Turgeon felt the need to.

On the whole, Mermaid was a fun read which broke up my usual reading pattern.  It's not going to win any prizes and it's not going to set your world on fire, but it's a lovely way to pass a Sunday afternoon.  Fans of fairy tales or fairy tale re-tellings will especially appreciate this book.

Source: Library
First Published: 2011
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday 11 November 2012

Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther

It's 1921 and the transatlantic liner Paris is sailing to New York from France and England.  Three passengers from three different classes and generations are onboard; Vera, Constance and Julie.  Vera Sinclair is an ex-pat American who has spent years in Paris and is now returning home after receiving the news that she hasn't got long to live.  Constance Stone is returning from an unsuccessful mission to bring her younger sister Faith home from Paris to help their mentally ill mother.  And Julie Vernet is working in steerage class on her first ocean crossing.  The three women are very different but all will be changed in some way by the voyage.

I enjoyed Crossing on the Paris a lot more than I expected to.  I thought it would be shallow and possibly a bit cheesy, but it wasn't at all.  The atmosphere of the 1920s and the glamour and squalor of ocean liners was captured well by Gynther and this made a great back-drop to the story.  The three women were vividly written and easily distinguishable from each other.  I liked the technique of splitting the book up in to chapters, with each one relating to a different day of the five-day crossing.

Of the three women, I found it easiest to relate to Julie.  Having lost all of her brothers in the First World War, she's desperate for a chance to get away from the grief and poverty of her home in France and jumps at the opportunity to work on the boat.  But she is assigned to serve in steerage class (3rd class) and the liner isn't as glamorous as she had hoped.  Suffering with low self-esteem, she's overjoyed when a handsome engineer takes an interest in her and is swept away in what she thinks is a romantic fairy tale only to learn a very hard lesson about life.  I really felt for Julie as I was reading her story and it's here that Gynther makes the plot more heavy going than I had anticipated it would be.  This book definitely isn't as sweet as the cover makes it look.

I also enjoyed Constance's story.  She's married to a man that she doesn't really love and gets a taste of freedom on board the Paris.  With no one to answer to but herself, she fools people into thinking she isn't married and is tempted to have an affair with another passenger.  Jealous of her sister's freedoms, Constance has to choose whether to live in the moment or remember all of her responsibilities   I think this is something we all face in life, not necessarily with adultery, but we all have moments where we have to choose between what we want to do and what is the right thing to do.  I didn't enjoy Vera's story as much as those of the other two women, but her voice was still engaging enough to make reading the book pleasant.

All in all, I enjoyed the time I spent with Crossing on the Paris. It's a lovely escapist read with more depth than I had anticipated.  Fans of historical fiction would enjoy this title.

Source: From Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley
Published: 13th November 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

Thursday 8 November 2012

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide is the second book in the Peirene Press series 'Female Voices' and is set in Spain before and during the Civil War.  Conxa is only thirteen when she is sent to a neighbouring mountain village to work for her aunt and uncle.  Life is hard in the way it has been for generations; men and women work long hours in the fields for little reward, the chores are endless and it's a struggle to get by. Conxa's days of work are brightened when she meets Jaume and they marry young.  But Jaume is an idealist captivated by democratic ideas and becomes a prominent local voice in the revolution. When this fledgling revolution is brutally crushed, Conxa has to face the inevitable consequences and the devastating effect on her life.

I enjoyed Stone in a Landslide mainly for the wonderful narrative voice of Conxa.  She's born into a hard life where being pragmatic and hard-working are skills prized above all, but she has a dreamy, romantic soul that can't be squashed.  She finds old dresses in the attic and puts them on, dreaming of a brighter future.  She loves pretty things.  She dawdles in the fields watching the sky.  She loves Jaume because he "puts new colours into her mundane world".  She really values happiness and is always seeking it for herself and her loved ones, prioritising feelings over politics at every turn.  It's hard not to like a character like this and even though Conxa is extremely naive about what is happening around her, I adored her.

I didn't know much about the Spanish Civil War before reading this book and it only filled in a few of my gaps.  Although it's set in a particular time and place (Spain in the early twentieth century), the story is more about the effects of war and political suppression on individual families; so in a sense, which war it is doesn't matter.  The feelings and consequences described are universal.  I was expecting the book to be more hard-hitting than it was in the final sections - I felt for Conxa but she became so detached that it was hard to really understand what it would have been like to be in her shoes.  I thought the effects of war could have been portrayed more powerfully than they were.  I wanted the book to upset me but it didn't.

Whilst I liked this book, I felt like I was reading it at a distance, never emotionally engaged with the story.  I could see Conxa was devastated, but I wasn't devastated with her, which prevented the book from having a strong impact.  It was expertly written, sensitively translated and taught me about a different period of history, but ultimately I needed more emotional engagement to properly enjoy it.

Source: From the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2010
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday 6 November 2012

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Caren is the manager at Belle Vie, a sprawling plantation house deep in Louisiana   One morning whilst making her inspection of the grounds, she comes across a young Mexican woman, brutally murdered and discarded.  With the police investigation inadequate, Caren investigates and the more she finds out, the more she starts to suspect a cover up.  The white owner of the property is desperate to sell, the woman's employer has a history of violence and  she might have uncovered something she shouldn't have just before her death.  The investigation even leads back to Caren's ancestor Joseph, a slave on the plantation that disappeared soon after gaining freedom.  An ambitious book, The Cutting Season covers race relations, history and politics as well as a criminal investigation.

Crime is not a genre I read very often but I had heard good things about Attica Locke.  In fact, I own her previous novel, Black Water Rising, although typically I haven't got around to reading it yet.  I'd seen some positive reviews of Cutting Season on other blogs and the setting of the book really appealed.  On our American honeymoon last summer, my husband and I spent a few weeks in Louisiana and we visited lots of those old plantation homes and there is something about the history and atmosphere of such places that I thought would make for a great crime story.  And that atmosphere was conveyed excellently in the book by Locke, it had an almost gothic, sinister feel which helped build suspense throughout.

On the whole, I enjoyed Cutting Season.  It's expertly written and ambitious in coverage.  The topics of race and slavery are handled sensitively and the book is thought provoking - who should really own the plantation houses?  Should they be preserved for history or should we wipe the slate clean and start again?  Does history belong to all of us or just a select few?  Should history affect modern day decisions?  Although I'm not a big fan of crime fiction, I could see that the mystery of who had killed Ines was well structured with enough red herrings to keep me guessing.  I didn't work out who it was before the big reveal.

Despite everything I enjoyed about the book, it just seemed to be missing that special something.  I don't know if it was purely because I don't love crime, but the middle section lagged and I never felt fully engaged with the story.  In some ways, I think Locke was too ambitious and couldn't do everything she wanted to do within the confines of a crime/mystery novel; the genre was too restrictive for all the themes she wanted to cover.  Locke was experimental by adding so much more to the genre but too confined by the conventions of the genre.  I would have liked to see more of a gothic literary style novel rather than a traditional whodunit.  

I'm sure crime fans will love this book as it's a good mystery and the writing is excellent.  I wasn't the biggest fan of this one but I don't think I was the right reader for it.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2012
My Edition: Serpent's Tail UK, 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday 4 November 2012

Sunday Salon: On Buying A House

Last week was the half term break for teachers and students here and it didn't come a moment too soon.  We had an unusually long first half term and we were all dead on our feet by the last Friday.  I cleared my desk, turned off my whiteboard, put everything in my cupboard and drove home without looking back.  I've not thought about work all week and it's been absolute bliss.  Because I've had such a good break, I'm looking forward to going back and getting stuck in again, recharged and ready to start over.

Most of our time this week has been taken up with house stuff.  I think I mentioned on here a few weeks back that we were putting in an offer on a house and the good news is that our offer was accepted about three weeks ago.  Since then, we've been finalising the mortgage with the bank, getting a solicitor, negotiating with the landlord to release us from our rental contract etc. etc. etc.

Things have felt like they are going very slowly but finally I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Our mortgage was agreed on Friday and the surveyor is going to the property next week.  Our solicitor is busily working on contracts.  I wish things could go quicker because I can't wait to live in the first house that will belong to us rather than someone else!

It's only a small house - a 2 bedroom terraced house in the center of town but good value for the very expensive area we want to live in!  What I like best about it is that it's built on the top of a hill overlooking a forest to the rear of the property.  So even though we are in the center of town (walking distance to the train station, library and shops), it still feels like you are away from the bustle, in your own world on top of a hill.  It's an upside down house too, with the bedrooms on the bottom floor and the living area upstairs.  I like that because it makes the most of the lovely views.  On each of our viewings, we could watch the squirrels running up and down the trees through the back windows.  At the moment we live in a lovely cottage on a very busy road so the peace and quiet will be much valued.

Today, we plan to continue sorting through our things and de-cluttering so we are ready to move.  Fingers crossed, we should be in by the end of the month!

Saturday 3 November 2012

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman

Latha is a servant girl, bought up alongside the daughter of a rich Sri Lankan family.  Exposed daily to the luxuries that wealth can bring, she resents her status as a servant and disobeys in small ways - stealing a bar of rose-scented soap for her own use or making extra lime juice to drink.  As she grows up, the differences between her and Thara become more apparent but their lives are so entwined that Latha has no option to break free.  Caught in a complex mix of love and hate and against the back drop of a violent civil war, her small acts of disobedience gradually grow larger, with consequences for everyone.  Told alongside Latha's story is that of Biso, a women fleeing an abusive husband with three small children in tow.   She hopes to make it to the hills to be taken in by an Aunt, but the war is escalating and her journey is rife with danger.

I really enjoyed A Disobedient Girl, mainly because of Latha herself.  I've seen reviews complaining that Latha is an unlikable main character as she's not the most moral of people.  And whilst that is true, I think this would have been a weaker book if Latha was simply written as a martyr.  I liked that she was stubborn, proud and determined not to take her situation lying down; she wouldn't roll over and accept things the way they were.  Throughout the book, Latha fought with whatever weapons she had available to her, even if that led to her doing questionable things, for example using sex to get back at her mistress early in the novel.  I loved her spirit and resourcefulness and her constant hope that she could make a better life for herself.   Even though she was in an impossible situation due to prejudice, she rarely gave in to bitterness.  Freeman is also a political journalist and this is very apparent in the way she writes about the situation Latha faced;

"There is was again: a proper servant.  That was all they had expected of her.  Despite her education, regardless of it, and her looks, she was supposed to be no more, no less.  Servant.  The thing that had concealed her intentions, her desires, her womanliness, her very soul."

I also enjoyed the dual narrative aspect of the book.  Chapters are alternated between Latha and Biso, and whilst it took me some time to get to grips with the fact that Latha's story unfolds over decades and Biso's only over a few days, the break in perspectives worked well.  I was happy with the link between the two characters when it was revealed and also felt the ending was in keeping with plot.  I also liked that the civil war stayed in the background of the story; too often it feels like authors from countries that have experienced war or political upheaval feel pressure to make this the center of their novels, like this is the only way people in the West will want to read their work.  The war in A Disobedient Girl is there, but only ever as a backdrop to the story of Latha and Biso.  I liked reading about other aspects of Sri Lankan life.  In the same way, I liked that Freeman didn't feel the need to explain every new thing to the reader, she just immersed us in Sri Lankan culture and let us find our own way.

The only criticism I would make of this book is that it was a bit over-long and slow at the start.  It seemed to be a long while before events started to happen and the middle section could have been edited down.  Other than that, it was a great read and I'll be keeping an eye out for any more books written by Freeman in the future.

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Penguin UK, 2011
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Thursday 1 November 2012

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

Over the coming months, you'll see lots of reviews of books published by Peirene Press, a publishing house based here in the UK that specialises in translations of short books that have received accolades in other European countries.  Lyndsey from Tolstoy is my Cat and I are completing a readalong of sorts, for which we will be reading and reviewing nine Peirene books from three collections;  female voices, male dilemmas and small epics.  Although I have received these books from the publisher in exchange for a review, all the views expressed are my honest opinion.

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