A Promising Pair from Peirene Press

Peirene Press, named after a Greek nymph who turned into a water spring which was drunk by poets for inspiration, is a new publishing house specialising in contemporary European literature in translation. I was lucky enough to win a copy of their first novel from Librarything, and was offered a copy of their second by Meike who runs the company, so I’ve read them together. Both books are short and beautifully produced, making reading them a pleasure.

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 Dovegreyreader, Savidge 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!


15 thoughts on “A Promising Pair from Peirene Press

  1. I finished Beside the Sea a few days ago and thought it was the best book I’d read so far in 2010. I can’t believe that Stone in a Landslide is even better – I think I’ll have to read it now 🙂

  2. I’d read quite a few reviews of Beside the Sea before I read it, so having worked out most of what was to come, it wasn’t quite as fresh for me – maybe if I’d have known less about it, I’d have given it the full 5* treatment! Stone in a landslide was lovely though and just pipped it for me.

  3. I read about Beside the sea from another blogger and it sounds like something that I’d get too involved with if that makes sense. The sort of think I would keep thinking and thinking about. Stone in a landslide I might consider.

    I dont know if the names were changed or not but I have a friend who is half French and she told me once that old fashioned english boys names are in vogue in some parts of France which might ecplain it (might not though)

    • Beside the sea was a one sitting whammy book! Stone … was simple but no less involving in a way.

    • For such a short book, and such a simple life (for the most part), it was just lovely, I agree.

  4. Beside The Sea is waiting for me at the library though I suspect that I will need to be feeling brave before I read it.
    Stone In A Landslide sounds wonderful – Peirene are clearly ones to watch.

    • I hope so, but they’re launching themselves into a difficult market – I hope people buy the books so they can thrive.

  5. I read Stone in a Landslide a couple of days ago, and I agree, it’s beautiful. The quiet way she marks the passage of time was one of the real strengths of the novel for me.

  6. How lovely to see both books reviewed and compared together. Thank you. As the publisher, I like to answer the query about the names of the two boys, Kevin and Stan. They are indeed the original names. I would never change the names in a text. Having said that, I, too, stumbled over them in the French text and asked the author about it. Her reply was, that there is a fashion in some parts of French society to give children English names.

    • Thank you Meike, I loved reading the books and hope they do well for you.

      Jessica also told me that the French often use English names now too (makes sense – being English, I love French names!)

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