A Promising Pair

Introducing Peirene Press

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

Translated by Adriana Hunter

A single mother takes her two young children to the seaside for the first time. Sounds nice doesn’t it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  It’s a budget outing – they arrive late at night on the coach in a dark little town where it’s raining cats and dogs. The hotel is sleazy; they’re given a grotty room on the top floor and there’s no lift.  So, they try to make the best of a bad thing.  The threesome do go onto the beach, but it’s still bad weather; they go to a café for hot chocolate, but the clientele aren’t friendly at all; then later they go to the funfair, and the boys go on the dodgems until they’re sick.

Narrated by the mother, we feel for her plight straight away. It’s obvious she’s virtually penniless and there’s no mention of her children’s father.  We discover she has no front teeth, and would normally be medicated – she is in a bad place mentally, but one thing shines through – she does love her boys.

In a way, I was thankful that this novel is short.  It’s so intense and bleak, building up the portrait of this damaged woman who lives for her boys, and you sense that there are more shocks to come. I won’t say more.  The translation excellently captures the mother’s voice, and you really feel sympathy for the mother and her sons.

I had one niggle – the boys are called Kevin and Stan – very English names – were they changed for the translation?  This just didn’t make it seem very French to me.  Wherever the setting though, it was an extremely thought-provoking and uncomfortable read that will stay with you. For other reviews see DovegreyreaderSavidge Reads, A Common Reader.  (8/10) I received this book from Librarything.

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

Translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell.

Maria Barbal is one of the most influential Catalan authors. This successful short novel was published in 1985, and has only now been translated into English.  It is the story of one woman’s life and love.

Conxa is a Catalan peasant. At the age of thirteen, she leaves her family to live with her aunt who has no children.  She works hard and earns her place in their family yet still knows no life outside of the cluster of villages, and only sees her own family at the festivals.  A few years later she meets Jaume, a builder rather than farmer, and they fall in love.  They remain living with her aunt, for Jaume works mostly away, but soon start raising their own family. The years pass, lives continue then the Spanish Civil War intervenes leading to tragedy. Conxa survives it all into old age and is able to rejoice in her children’s own families.

Despite being a mere 126 pages, this is a masterful portrait of a rural life in the Pyrenees.  It’s subsistence living, each family struggling to get by with their few fields, but it’s a good life for those that are lucky enough to find a soul-mate like Conxa. This is a story of strong characters, dominated by Conxa and Jaume of course whose love story shines through the hardships. The passage of time just flows by without any unnecessary explanations, and all too soon I reached the last page.  A hugely enjoyable read.  (9/10) Book kindly supplied by the publisher – thank  you.

I shall look forward to future Peirene publications – to paraphrase the Masterchef slogan, contemporary European literature doesn’t get better than this!

2 thoughts on “A Promising Pair

  1. Marina Sofia says:

    Beside the Sea is one of those books that I hesitate to call a favourite, as it is so bleak, but it really stayed with me. Haunting. I would just like to say that English names are very popular in France (particularly with the working classes or lower-middle aspiring to upper middle classes), as it sounds cooler, supposedly. My son’s classroom was full of Ethan, Charly, Jordan, Ronan, Tom and the like (all pronounced in the French manner, though).

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