Thursday, May 16, 2013

Unsettling, one step further | Beside the Sea

It's kind of hard to start a book like Beside the Sea without knowing how it's going to end. Maybe it had been spoiled for me in the past (a basic Google search brings up major reviews that completely spoil this novella's end...), maybe it's just something so hypnotically expectant about the writing, but the story's end didn't feel particularly surprising. That said, I'm not going to spoil it. I'll leave you anxiously expectant, as I was. But I will give you the bare-bones summary: a single mother takes her two sons on an unexpected trip to the sea. There. Story - summarized. That's a review, right?
We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.
I've encountered reviews of Beside the Sea that tout its opening sentence as encompassing the mood of the novella.  Other readers have focused on the phrase "so no one would see us" in that first sentence, commenting that here the mysterious mood is set. Why would anyone board a bus in such fear? Who would care? But for me, the line that really captures Beside the Sea comes just a bit later, when the mother says: "I wanted us to set off totally believing in it." And here I ask another question, the one that defined my reading experience: believing in what? I felt expectant, I felt like I was waiting for something.

Beside the Sea is the type of book you'll read in one short, rather intense setting. Is this also something everyone else has already told you? Probably. Probably because it's true. Beside the Sea is short - terribly short - just that length and pulsing and hypnotizing that you don't even notice it's well past midnight and you have a test the following morning. It seems like nothing really happens until the last two pages, but then everything seems to have happened (in retrospect). It is no doubt a very unique novella, but I really don't know how much I can say I liked it.

This happens sometimes. I appreciate the artistic value behind Beside the Sea, because it's just bursting with it. The simple writing, the rather incredible pacing, those occasional punchy sentences that leap from the page... and then there's the hint of the bigger story, which Olmi never introduces to us. We catch only glimpses of the mother's life beyond her children, masterfully written in such a way that it's not as though it's just a topic she's avoiding, rather it's something that hasn't come up specifically.

And of course the ending. Not surprising in the least, it probably won't actually catch readers off guard. But if people admire the opening sentence, I have to admire the closing one - in three words, Olmi leaves readers even more unsettled and uncomfortable than everything else that had come before it. That's a pretty major achievement. But still. I couldn't actually like the book. You can't just like this type of book. And I can hardly imagine recommending it to someone. I'm not sure I'd be able to look them in the eye and hand off this strange and powerful experience. I'll leave that decision up to any prospective reader, I suppose. On your own head be it.


  1. This is one of my favourite books so it is great to see that you've read it. I agree about how unsettling it is and I also agree that I find it difficult to recommend it to people - who wants to be responsible for giving someone such an emotional read? I also agree about how many spoilers there are floating around for this book. Congratulations on avoiding posting one!

  2. I loved this book for the way it was written, but I agree that it's hard to say you really liked it. How can you with a story like that, it's so complex and you can't even say whether the main character is likeable or not. For me it's that second half of the first sentence. It says a lot about the book, the ending, but also about the mindset.

  3. This novella has been on my wishlist for well over a year now. And I've managed to avoid spoilers. It sounds like I should read it now before I accidentally encounter any of those out there. ;)

  4. I agree totally - you can't like it, but you can appreciate it. It's such a shame about spoilers, I was lucky enough to read it early, spoiler-free.


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