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Bleak hotel made me blue

August 11, 2012 29 comments

Bord de mer by Véronique Olmi. 2001. English title: Beside The Sea. 

On avait pris le car, le dernier car du soir, pour que personne ne nous voie. Avant de partir les enfants avaient goûté, j’avais remarqué qu’ils ne finissaient pas le pot de confiture et j’ai pensé que cette confiture allait rester pour rien, c’était dommage, mais je leur avais appris à ne pas gâcher et à penser aux lendemains. We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day. (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

Right from the start you know something isn’t normal. Why doesn’t she want to be seen leaving town? Why does she care that there’s some jam left? Stunning paragraph. Those tiny details tip you off and you dread the worst.

Our narrator is a mother of two sons, Stanley (9) and Kevin (5). For a French reader, although Kevin has become a fairly common name, Stanley sounds very American. Only poorly educated social classes burden their children with American names coming from soaps or sitcoms. She takes her children to the seaside to show them the sea. It’s a school day, the weather is foul, the trip is unprepared. Something is off, as if she decided this on a whim. The journey quickly turns into a nightmare. The rain is pouring, the hotel is bleak, there isn’t enough money. She’s obviously very poor, why would she mind wasting jam? Her nest egg for the holidays is made of petty cash from the groceries and amounts to 52 FRF, 7,5€. Almost nothing, the kind of cash you give a kid for their allowance.

With small touches we learn more about this uncommon mother. She doesn’t know how to take care of her kids. She loves them but her psychological problems stand in the way. She’d like to be a common mother but she simply can’t. She’s totally unbalanced and her mental health is so wrecked that she’s often unable to get up, leaving the children unattended. She suffers from panic attacks in the stairwell of the hotel. She’s disoriented in the small seaside town, disoriented in her own life. She loves them dearly though and they love her back. However, she knows that their years of being inseparable are behind.

Il imite déjà les grands, j’ai pensé, et je me suis demandé combien de temps un enfant peut rester le fils de sa mère, à partir de quand il était méconnaissable, je veux dire, pareil aux autres. He’s already imitating grown-ups, I thought, and 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. (translated buy Adrianna Hunter)

Stan is nine and she knows he starts judging her, comparing her to other mothers. Both children go to school, have a life of their own outside the house, apart from her. She resents that Kevin likes his school mistress so much. She resents that Stan evades in books and observes her silently when she collapses in the kitchen table or stays in bed.

Véronique Olmi’s style is excellent, the mother has a moving voice and although she’s obviously a bad mother, it’s hard to judge her. She’d like to improve but she can’t. Neither the psychiatrist she sees nor the social worker who follows her are able to help her efficiently. I felt compassion for her and an awful lot of pity for the children.

When my first child was born, I grew a new self who includes an internal watchtower that makes me acutely aware of children in my surroundings. I started to notice and step in when a child was doing something dangerous. So reading about Stan and Kevin made me sad. Sad because the story is plausible. Sad because this mother doesn’t have the strength to overcome her problems. Sad that we, as a society, can’t help people like her. Sad because her children still love her the way children love their parents, unconditionally.

Bord de mer is located by the sea, I imagined the North coast, given that cold and that foul weather. I read this when I was on holiday by the Mediterranean sea. I did it on purpose because I knew it was difficult to read, emotionally, I wanted a quick escape from the book if needed. The weather was bright, azure sky, 30°C outside, 24°C in the water. My children were playing in the sea, totally carefree, mostly concerned by the flavour of their next ice-cream. Reading this novella in this décor was a mistake. The contrast between what I was reading and what I was living was even more violent. I know there are Stans and Kevins somewhere and I wish they could have as good a childhood as my own children. And I wondered how I could explain to my kids how lucky they are. Because in the end, all this is luck. A good health is luck. Escaping redundancies is luck as well.

Bord de mer has been abundantly reviewed in the English speaking blogosphere. Here are other reviews other than the ones already listed by Max. Reviews by Sarah, Tony, Stu

Max: a big thank you for providing in your post the English translation of the quotes I wanted to include. I was more than happy to discover them here.

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