Sunday 5 December 2010

Beside the Sea

It's been a bit of an intense week reading-wise as I picked this little novella up from the library and read it in two sittings. I read it reviewed on someone's blog recently and was intrigued, not sure what I expected but a very interesting book.

This is a picture of quite frightening paranoia and the fine line that we all tread. It is one opinion that there is no such thing as mental illness, that we are all somewhere on the spectrum of what might be considered 'normal', but reading a book like this makes you appreciate that some people are not. The narrator is a young woman who is describing a journey to the seaside with her two young sons, on the surface just trying to do something fun, to take them out of their everyday lives and inject a little magic. But nothing about this woman is easy and as you read her inner monologue you find yourself sucked into a surreal place where she is fighting a continual battle to stay in control of her fears and to make sense of an apparently hostile world. She is afraid of everything, constantly worried that people are noticing her and thinking things about her, worried about doing the wrong thing, and I found myself wanting to tell her to stop being so pathetic , but the more you read the more you get drawn in to her way of seeing the world. Everything does seem to conspire against her; she has obviously planned this trip for some time, saved money she could ill afford, making decisions that obviously cause her much anxiety, and nothing seems to work out the way she planned. She has this image in her head of what 'normal' families do, and a trip to the seaside is supposed to be an enjoyable adventure, she just wants to make her boys happy, but every setback sends her into a spiral of stress that makes her withdraw from the situation. Her coping mechanism is to go to sleep, though even sleep seems to be a place where she is tormented by fears.

So they take this endless bus journey, they arrive to find themselves lost in a sea of mud, find a hotel but must climb an insurmountable six flights to a room so tiny the door will not open properly, it rains interminably and the sea is more frightening than exciting. They have hardly any money left for food and are cold and miserable. Each encounter with other people adds to her anxiety, even the process of going into a shop to buy some biscuits is loaded with frightening possibilities. And all the time we have her running commentary from the inside of her head, a mixture of her desperate longing to make her sons happy and a terror of people judging her ineptitude as a parent. They go to a cafe and to the funfair, still in the rain, she is trying so hard to create something for them, but it all falls apart:

"Stan stood himself in front of me, I couldn't see the white light any more, I came back down in freefall, my head spinning while my body stayed still, Stan was shouting that we had to go back and go to bed, that Kevin was tired, that Kevin had been sick, that Kevin was crying, that Kevin was coughing, Stan was blocking the big wheel from view, with his wet hair and his huge mouth, I hardly recognised him. I looked over at the littl'un, he was sobbing, his shoulders shuddering, snot running from his nose over his mouth, and his legs kicking in thin air. The fun was over." (p.88)

And yet sometimes the hostility of the world is quite palpable and you are not so sure it is all inside her head. In the cafe they become the object of curiosity because her money consists of a tin a very small change with which she tries to pay the bill. The hotel staff and shop keeper are irritated or indifferent, and you can understand how someone so emotionally vulnerable would perceive this negatively. She refers at one point to a broken collar bone and you are left to assume abusive relationships have been part of the damage done to her. She has no-one to trust or rely on, her sense of the world is so very fragile and she is trying to protect her sons. It is a strong portrayal too of Stan, the older son who is far too worldly wise and weary of his mother's illness, a boy whose childhood has been dominated by it, burdened with responsibilities much too early and yearning for his mother's comfort and support. Even without the not so subtle comment on the back cover you could predict where this spiral of craziness was headed.
A thoroughly disturbing book, very convincingly written.

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