Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi

Beside The Sea took me barely more than hour to read - it's only about 120 pages long - and I do think this intense, claustrophobic novella is best read in one sitting. Written by French author Veronique Olmi, the story takes place over 24 hours in the lives of an unnamed mother and her two boys, Stan and Kevin, beginning with her taking them to the seaside on an overnight bus, having suddenly decided that it's essential they see the sea for the first time.

If, like me, you find the opening ten minutes of Casualty almost impossible to watch without wanting to intervene to stop the inevitable accidents, or have to put your hands over your eyes at CCTV footage of someone recklessly running across a railway line or edging along the outside of a motorway bridge, you will find Beside The Sea a deeply unsettling and stressful read. It becomes almost immediately apparent that the narrator is at best inadvertently neglectful of her children and at worst, severely unstable, and it's almost impossible to read her story without wanting to protect the children from her; at the same time, it's also impossible not feel deeply sorry for her.

Endless anxiety and cruelly severe depression torture her daily and, by association, her sons. Aged nine and five, they're left standing outside the school gates until 6pm, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and frequently unfed; their mother's self-confessed inability to stick to any kind of routine means they fend for themselves while she sleeps for whole days at a time. Stan, the elder boy,  frequently finds himself cast in the role of carer for his mother and his little brother as the family struggle desperately to cope. And yet, despite her erratic parenting, despite her infuriating, disturbing state of denial about certain aspects of her neglect, it's obvious the narrator loves her children, wants something better for them, wants to provide for them - and understands them, too. In fact, her love for the children is the one constant in her life, and strangely, it's this that makes the book all the more disturbing as the story comes to an end.

We're told very little about the narrator's past, except that the children have different fathers and the younger boy's doesn't know his son exists, yet tiny hints (a reference to her missing front teeth; a passing comment that implies she has lived with someone who constantly belittled her) suggest that she may have been a victim of domestic abuse. Is this what has tipped a vulnerable woman over the edge? What was she like before she had her children? Those questions are simply never answered, and I think that perhaps the book is all the better for that: while the narrator's problems are clearly a long way beyond those of most mothers, every parent has moments like hers. Every parent doubts their ability to care for their child; every parent feels guilty, inadequate, over-defensive in the face of other's judgements. What makes this narrative so powerful is knowing this, knowing that even the best of parents can find themselves at the precipice of becoming unable to cope, and wondering how easy it might be to slide over the edge.

This short read is expertly translated by Adriana Hunter, retaining a vivid narrative voice for the protagonist, as fractured and dislocated as her state of mind. In fact I absolutely felt like I was reading the words of a real person rather than a fictional character, and in many ways, this was one of the things that made Beside The Sea a tough read. I have no children, and I'm not sure I could have got through this book if I did. In short, brilliant but devastating.