Friday, 10 August 2012

Rethinking Olmi's 'Beside the Sea', by Gill Rye

Our featured text at our first workshop, in May 2012, was Véronique Olmi’s superb novella Beside the Sea (2010; originally published in French as Bord de mer (2001)), which is about maternal ambivalence and despair, ending with a mother’s murder of her children. My paper on the text focused on the mother’s voice and perspective in the novel, considering its various literary techniques and effects. 

As part of my argument, I stated that the narrative was relatively coherent and thus did not fall into the category of ‘trauma fiction’ (as defined by Anne Whitehead (2004)), that is, fiction that mimics traumatic narratives, and includes techniques such as repetitions, ellipses, flashbacks, blank spaces, non-chronological narratives and screen memories, to evoke the effects of trauma. However, since then, I have thought more about this point, because there are silences in the text – as indeed I mentioned in my paper – and I would now tend to argue that haunting the narrative of the events leading up to the mother’s killing of her children are traces of another narrative, suggesting a trauma behind – or at the root of – the tragic outcome. This trauma narrative is, then, not the narrative of child murder, or even of maternal ambivalence.  Rather, it is to be read in the silences and fragmented comments about the narrator’s family background and her physical and mental state (for example, asides about broken teeth and shoulder problems suggest she has been subjected to physical violence), implying that the killing may partly be the outcome of some trauma that cannot be spoken. My paper is still work in progress and I intend to explore this aspect further in due course.
Since the book, which has been translated into a number of European languages (including Italian, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Hungarian and Polish), generated a great deal of discussion at the workshop, and there is much more to be said about it, perhaps we could kick off the virtual reading group by discussing it further now. So, I’d like to invite participants who were at the first workshop and anyone else who would like to get involved to post their thoughts about this text here. If you have not yet read it, it is available in English translation from the publisher, and in English and other languages from various on-line booksellers.


  1. At the end, when the mother has smothered one child and the older one is still alive, sleeping, he stirs and the mother fears that he may be looking at her and that he may wake up. When I read this, I found myself hoping he would not wake up, so that he would be spared the horror and in ths way, I think, at that moment, the narrator makes us involuntary accomplices of her act. Moreover, the younger child did not stir at all, even during the suffocation, so in a sense, he was spared the fear and pain. But in this case, when she smothers the second child, he does fight back with his arms, patting her on the back, and here were realize that he has not been spared. I dont know if this occurred to you, but I felt that the interval between the two smotherings was a very powerful moment, leaving me confused/ashamed at the end to realize that I had hoped that the brother would not wake up. In this way, the narrator turns us into involuntary accomplices, even if it is only for a few moments, and it is our desire to protect him that makes us not want him to wake up. (I say "our desire" presuming other readers shared the same experience....). I think the effect of this narrative tecnique helps us to connect with the shadow side of ourselves as mothers and realize that it does not come from an "evil" source.

    Liz Challinor
    Associate researcher

  2. on behalf of Gill Rye: Thanks for that really interesting insight, Liz. I think you are absolutely right that the narrative works to make the reader complicit with the narrator’s motivation and actions at that point. It is very powerful. It would be interesting to know what other readers think. In fact, perhaps we could launch the virtual reading group of this Network on this thread by continuing the discussion of Olmi’s fascinating text. So please get involved. The discussion is open to all those who have read the text, not only those who attended the workshop in May. Just add your comments here.

  3. on behalf of Meike Ziervogel: The reference in the text to the narrator's physical and - to a lesser extent - to her mental state were for me the least successful parts of the narrative. I reacted to this narrative so strongly, precisely because the protagonist didn't reveal herself as 'mad', the author did not condemn her as a 'monster' and therefore the reader cannot take this escape route either, but is staring the dark side of maternal love right in the face.
    This is what makes this text so powerful. I read the extract with the bad teeth first, before I knew the entire text (because the translator Adriana Hunter had send me this extract). I remember thinking, if this is yet another text where the mother is portrayed as mad and therefore the reader can put her safely into the 'mad cage' happily pretending the protagonist is a mad monster and the rest of us are standing safely on another shore, I wouldn't have been interested in publishing this book in English.
    Readers react very strongly to this book - positively and negatively.
    Occasionally, the book has been literally thrown back into my face and booksellers' faces. Some mothers find this narrative very difficult to handle, because it presents them with the frightening truth that perhaps maternal love is not just a constructive drive.
    Meike Ziervogel
    Peirene Press,