What Are We Reading?: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter
5/5 Broken Seashells
Give me the short version:
A disadvantaged mother scrimps to give her young sons just one treat, before ...
**spoiler alert! It's difficult to write in any way about Beside the Sea without revealing the finish. But of course, the moment you begin to read you understand it can't end any other way**
By chance I read Beside the Sea directly after Jane Gilmore's amazing and heartrendingly honest essay What I Learned About Poverty in Meanjin, which made for quite the one-two punch. On reflection I've come to think this was the perfect introduction and recommend it for companion reading, especially if like me you come from an advantaged background. Think of it as a primer.
Beside the Sea is a short and uncompromising. A single mother struggles to provide an unaccustomed pleasure to her two children: a trip to the seaside. You have a front row seat to the disorienting effects of her mental illness, her social isolation, their poverty, and how unpleasant a place the world can be.
There are moments of love. They are mostly drowned in the mud of the everyday.
A couple of years ago as part of a friend's production of Medea I was in a group of women who were interviewed on love, and what we thought of mothers who kill their children. Some were quick to condemn the culprit, but not so much the grinding everyday life which drove them there, the strictures of society that kept them down.
Having flirted with being poor and depressed, those two going hand-in-hand like a couple of assholes, I recalled a video I'd watched while studying psychology. It was of a mother who'd undertaken exactly what Beside the Sea is about. Her mental illness was now controlled, but her grief and bafflement were so overwhelming I couldn't find it in my heart to blame her. Instead I felt sick and horrified by even that brief brush against the life that had driven her so far.
Reading stories like this isn't "enjoyable," unless by dispassionate appreciation of the author's mastery of language (and the translator's!). They are shattering. They stay with you for days, weigh the spirit down. However I think stories like Beside the Sea are essential for developing our empathy.
We live in an age of echo chambers, where people too easily become insulated and trigger-happy. We forget that the vast majority of humanity is not like us. Their experiences are invisible to us and unlike ours. Their actions should not be coldly measured by our tape.
I think it's critical to read and have some understanding what existence means for a great many people, and how smothering darkness might become the only gesture love has left.
"We'll take her back a seashell, I replied, and I thought perhaps we should do that, choose a seashell and give it to the teacher, my son's first love, yep, give her his first seashell. Now that made Kevin smile, and I was proud of myself, I know how to handle my kids, I thought, I just need to be left to get on with it ..."