There’s always something infinitely satisfying about books that take risks. Most especially when those books are good. How to balance subject matter or form or technique and the reader it must lead to? How to fine-tune that balance between craft and the artist’s intentions? How to ruffle the bejeebies of a person, and still have her, at the book’s close, go Wow, what just happened to me, do it again, please? And how, dear god, how, to accomplish all that in just a teensy bit over a hundred pages?
How does it even work, really?
In Véronique Olmi’s slim and tidy and terrifyingly affective book, Beside the Sea, risks come by the bucketful. Its very premise gives you a glimmer of those risks — a mother brings her two sons beside the sea, but you just know all is not well. The novella begins with We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. Quite mundane, really. The mother is bringing her children out to see the sea.
But I’ve always believed that in shorter fiction, the dictum of Every Word Matters is even more pressing: You have a hundred pages to make your story matter; you do not dilly-dally. In Olmi’s novella, we are hooked, then strung along, from that very first line.
I am gushing, and I’m just at the first sixteen words of the book. Beside the Sea is just such a disquieting book, and so very powerful. And we are warned, those sixteen words. Doom and gloom await you. And getting there isn’t a ray of sunshine either. It’s not so much horror that I experienced nor was it madness that I felt was at the center of that disquiet. Something was just not right. And the more I read, the more certain I grew about that. And of course I had to read on.
The book has such a taut narrative, and it’s mostly due to Olmi’s handling of the revelations — Knowing what to reveal, how much of it one should, when, and how. Olmi succeeds with this, it’s made for engrossing storytelling. That hint of something not quite right — I will go back to this over and over. What the mother is, for one, we’re never quite certain. We want to define her, we want to know what she is. The mystery is multi-layered. For one thing, we are in the head of this character. It’s through her that we know this story. But we know so little of her, really. The answers we want, to Where are you from?, to What are you really doing here?, to Are you really going to do this? This unnamed mother is not so much an unreliable narrator so much as she’s a disquieting person.
No matter how firmly we have planted ourselves in her mind throughout this narrative yet still knowing so little; and as much as it is in our nature to know more, to be curious — We are satisfied with what Olmi has chosen to reveal about this character. I don’t have the theories to back this up, but I just know that I was satisfied because she was good.
See how the entire narrative leads to that conclusion. Yes, you can see that coming from a mile away, but it doesn’t matter. Olmi makes certain that we don’t miss a thing, that we are with her as she reveals, as she tells her story. Every scene is important, every word. And the means is as significant, as grave, as the end.
I’m just at the tip of the iceberg really. You know the blurby phrase, “slim powerhouse” — this is that. It just packs so much. As soon as I was done with it, I realized that this would be a joy to read over and over. That if anyone would ever have the mad idea to give me a teaching position, this would be one of those books that’d just be perfect to teach and dissect and wonder at. Because I’m just so sure that no matter how many Whys and Hows I throw at it, those questions won’t be answered the way I want them. Because Olmi, man, that Olmi sure knows what she’s doing.
- Beside the Sea was the first offering from “small” publishing house, Peirene Press. To ye lucky souls, if Book Depository ships to your country, I heartily suggest you go clicky. Yes, this is shameless plugging. But there is a need for more people in the world to be disturbed so artfully. UPDATE: The Book Depository now ships free to the Philippines. Wasak!
- Reading Begets Reading: Am currently making my way through Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar, reissued by NYRB Classics. You see that gorgeous book at the sidebar? Yes, that? I’m reading that. Because that, too, is about madness. But of a completely different kind. [I am tempted to call August the Unofficial Madwoman Month.]