by Dan Powell
The singular focus of the novella makes it an ideal form for intense and claustrophobic narratives. Such stories risk becoming endurance tests for the reader if extended into the bulk of the novel but sit well within the shorter form. However uncomfortable the subject matter of a novella, however oppressive the mood, the reader can follow challenging characters and explore difficult issues in the comparative safety of their shorter word count. Véronique Olmi’s tragic tale of a single-mother adrift in her depression is one such novella.
Beside the Sea is narrated by a nameless mother who, in the middle of the night, takes her two boys, Stan and Kevin, on ‘holiday’ to a rain swept coastal town besieged by a cold grey sea. The story follows her desperate, often pathetic attempts to spend the last of her money giving the boys a fun seaside visit. It is only late in the novella that we realise the real reason she has brought them too this place, yet the positivity of the novella’s title is crushed under the weight of the mother’s perspective right from the austere and taut first sentence: ‘We took the bus, the last of the evening, so no one would see us.’
Throughout the novella the narrator is anxious to avoid being noticed by others. ‘Everyone is waiting for you put a foot wrong, for you to fall,’she says, tortured by her perception of the judgemental eyes that surround her. Her response is to ‘act like I knew what I was doing. What matters is to look like you know,’ but it would be clear from her actions, even if we did not have the further insight into her thoughts that the narrative voice provides, that she is unravelling. At first we think perhaps her view of the world as uniformly hostile, fuelled by her depression and failing to take her pills, is in error. Early in the novella the reader does not feel included when she says ‘We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice.’
We watch her actions with the same wary eye as her eldest boy, Stan, who gives her ‘suspicious looks like when I just sit in the kitchen and he watches me, thinking I don’t know he’s there.’ We soon learn that it is Stan who cares for the younger Kevin when their mother sleeps away Sundays or is unable to get either of the boys ready for school. It is Stan who quickly becomes the recipient of the reader’s sympathy as we discover the many ways he parents his little brother and the narrator’s description of Stan as hostile and suspicious only serves to further fuel the reader’s doubting of the mother’s ability to judge the motives of those around her. It is clear, to the reader at least, that Stan is simply looking out for his mother as best as a ten year old can.
Once the trio leave the bleak, cramped quarters of their hotel room and venture out, first to a rainswept beach and steel grey sea, and then to a cafe where a spiteful owner and drunken clientele belittle not only the narrator but Stan as he counts out piles of pennies to pay for their drinks, we start to realise that the mother’s wariness of the world is justified. When the landlord scatters the boy’s carefully counted coins across the table and floor we are suddenly more prepared to accept the narrator’s view. Suddenly she has our sympathy. As they move to the fair and the boys finally grasp a moment of pleasure on the dodgems it seems things might just be about to improve, but instead of witnessing that childish moment of joy, the narrator is swept into the spiralling mental turmoil of her thoughts and is only dimly aware of the boys returning for more money before disappearing back into the bustle of the fair. At the end of the evening, the money all spent and five year old Kevin sick from too many treats, it is Stan who must bring his mother back to the world, shouting at her to take them back through the perpetual drenching rain to the hotel and the novella’s crushing climax. Too late we become horribly aware of the why she has brought the boys here.
Beside the Sea is a layered and precise narrative. The warning signs for what happens are there to be seen, right from the beginning, though they might be missed first time around, just as the signs can be missed in such tragedies when they take place in the real world. The closing moments leave the reader wishing that the narrator had been lying when she said ‘it’s not true that I’m paralysed by my anxieties.’ In truth, she is all too able to act upon them, with tragic consequences. Beside the Sea is an uncomfortable, disturbing and important work that challenges readers’ sympathies. Midway through the novella the narrator says ‘unhappiness is not a pretty sight.’ Beside the Sea certainly does not make for easy reading, is claustrophobic and at times ugly, but, as one reviewer pointed out, ‘It should be read.’ If real art has the capacity to make us nervous, then I can think of no greater novella than this one.
Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared across the internet, on mobile devices, and in print, most notably in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.