Category: Veronique Olmi

book review – Beside the Sea – Veronique Olmi

“Everyone’s always waiting for you to put a foot wrong, for you to fall, it’s like walking on soap, yes, our lives are full of soap, that’s what I think.”

You know when you are reading a great writer’s work when they are able to make you believe in a character totally, even if that character is a million miles away from your own position.

Veronique Olmi has produced a story that might be short but has the power of a rock being thrown into a still pool. The ripples of the story roll over you and in the end you are grateful that the book is perhaps no longer.

A single mother with two children, Stan and Kevin, heads to a hotel in a seaside town to take them on their last journey. Failed by social services, off her medication and unable to see anything other than the bad in people the story starts with the trio boarding the bus and heading off to the hotel.

The children provide a contrast between the wise in the form of the older boy Stan and the naive innocence of Kevin who is devastated that he has left his blanket behind and not taken it on the trip. Stan has been forced to grow up and fill in the cracks left by a mother unable to function in the mornings or much as a mother full stop.

Stan seems to be able to understand her but of course he can’t fully. Olmi is brilliant at describing that tightrope between childish and adult understanding and stressing just when it’s needed the immaturity of Stan.

But can the mother be blamed when she has been let down by a system that would rather do things by filling in forms and asking for tests rather than really listening to the person? You would expect someone to see the warning signs to read where the situation was going and to intervene.

Even at the hotel and the seaside town what strikes you is how, apart from some bored men looking for trouble, no one asks what she is doing and where they are going. The children are in ill-fitting clothing and off school but no one picks up on this.

If there is a moral from this story that I’m taking away it is perhaps that society, not just social workers, has a responsibility to look out for each other and to be braver in challenging the unusual.

This book is a great example of how if an author can understand and describe the human mind, even an extremely damaged one, then the story is not only believable but has the power to shake you deeply.