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France: Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi

November 5, 2012

As I get older, I tend to try to protect my heart and mind by not subjecting myself deliberately to anguish. Youthfulness always seems to welcome recklessness in this regard. But now, I am too broken to sit and take in the ills of the world without them leaving an impression that is too difficult to shake. Parenthood has done this to me — the news is a harrowing exploration of how much pain I can tolerate. My husband will often warn me away from the day’s events: “Just don’t get on the Internet,” he’ll say and I will make the inventible choice to not listen to him and then find myself resisting the urge to ball up into the fetal position and cry for weeks.

The story — a year ago — about the man who died at the Texas Rangers baseball game while attending with his young son shakes me still. I cannot think on it without bawling. All the details to emerge; they are pieces of this world that are, occasionally, too much for me to take, to think on. To process. In the city where we live, a mother threw her children off a bridge a few years ago, killing one and injuring the other. And, of course, there is the recent tragedies involving children — the nanny in New York, the children swept away from their mother during Hurricane Sandy.

These are not creations — they are real life.

So, then, why should we subject ourselves to reading fiction that deals with pain and suffering? Isn’t life painful enough? And if we do, what do we have to gain by exploring death and loss and grief? What is the point of it all?

While reading on the Tin House blog, I stumbled upon a book that has piqued my interest as much as it terrifies me. It is called “Beside the Sea”, it is a book written in French, translated, and could be a good, quick choice for someone looking for a book for France. It is, however, a story of a mom who takes her boys for an amazing weekend of fun and games and sweets and joy — knowing that it will be the last weekend together. She is planning on taking their lives to save them from the cruelest consequence of being born: Growing up.

The very premise of this book is gut-wrenching and raw — tangled in fear and pain and anguish. Children in peril — what is more devastating than that? And at the hand of the one person on this earth that they are wired to trust? Who SHOULD have their best interests at heart? How. How. How can I subject myself to reading this book when I know that the conclusion will crush me? How can I pick up the book and allow myself to immerse my psyche in this world without being utterly changed by every word? I can’t.

One of my favorite books of all time is “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. And, as I’ve written, it is a book that packs an emotional wallop. When I reached Russell’s startling denouement, I bawled — it tore me up. I dreamed about it, obsessed about the ways it could have ended differently; I felt emotionally spent, wracked and wreaked and yet, it was precisely BECAUSE the book had this effect on me that I loved it so much.

In further exploration of “Beside the Sea”, the blog stumbles upon a lecture about how we can use literature to explore real-life tragedy and discuss it in a way that cannot happen otherwise. There is this quote by the lecturer that says: “Literature brings us to an acknowledgment of situations which I think that legal reports, media reports simply don’t do. This has really reinforced my impression that we need to engage on a literary level with these tragedies.”

Which would mean that literature is not only important to explore the things that make us uncomfortable, but necessary.

I do not have to be convinced in the power of a story. Literature defines generations and helps usher change; and according to this lecture, literature also helps us cope and deal with real-life tragedy by allowing us to access evil and pain from different perspectives. But at what point do you make the decision to allow yourself to live in the brain of someone who is going to murder their children? In the book “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, you need to prepare emotionally for crawling into a world of darkness. It explores evil and child-rearing and responsibility. And it tugs on you in our most hidden and not-talked about places: What if I don’t love what I created? As a reader, it pulls you under — you drown in guilt and remorse and pain.

So, should I encourage people not to read it? Or should I demand them to.

I don’t know. Honestly.

But I know that as I weigh whether or not I should go seek out “Beside the Sea”, I have to establish for myself — am I at a place where I can allow myself into that mom’s head? As a mom of two boys, can I really walk her actions into my life forever? Or as a human being, should I face the demons and the pain and the fear straight-on and allow myself to mourn; allowing the fully-realized character to take a strong-hold in my life for a few short days, weeks, and maybe beyond? Will this book help me humanize people who take the lives of their own children? Or will it crush me too much?

This is a blog of questions, not answers. But I do think we should take the above quote to heart and ask ourselves if we are allowing our reading lists to reflect an engagement with the world that we normally steer away from. And, to that purpose, I suppose we must ask: Why do we read? (A question I pose to my students often.) Do you view reading as entertainment? Or do you rest in and seek out the transformative nature of books?

And if reading is supposed to be transformative, then, shouldn’t we allow ourselves to explore things that have the potential to be painful? Maybe. I think. Yes.

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