Elena Ferrante (text), Mara Cerri (illus.), Ann Goldstein (translation), The Beach at Night, Text Publishing, 1 Nov 2016, 40pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925355741
This is a book about betrayal and cruelty.
Five-year-old Mati is playing on the beach with her family and her doll, Celina. Mati is entranced by her new cat, Minu, so much so that when the family leave the beach, Celina is forgotten, and left behind with the rubbish.
More an illustrated fable than a picture book, this translated story from well-known Italian author of adult novels, Elena Ferrante, does not shy away from danger, despair, and the ugliness of life. With overtones of a Grimm fairy tale, the trope of a lost child is given a different spin, with a loved toy being the central narrator character, lost and alone in the terrors of the night.
The doll and her owner represent a troubled mother-daughter relationship. This is clearly a recurring theme in Ferrante’s work. Words, names, and language are precious and powerful, commodities worth stealing from the lost doll by evil “beach attendants”. There are difficult ideas here that are more suitable for adult fiction. Australian children may also have difficulty relating to the attendants, rakes and rubbish of the beach scenes, which are described in quite different terms to Australian coastal customs, and helpful life-savers.
By displacing the main conflict onto a loved doll, it could be that a child reader may engage with the dire circumstances of fire, flood, and abandonment while maintaining a safe emotional distance. However, the text is not a smooth read for young ones, with difficult and jarring choices in vocabulary. There are words that could offend adult book buyers of children’s literature. It may be a controversial choice for librarians, teachers, and parents. In my own reading I reacted against the vulgar words, and wanted to abandon the book. I suspect that most people reading this story to children would skip these sections.
Minu rescues Celine providing a happy ending, where both new and old play-things are reunited with their child owner. A “new normal” emerges, allowing for the possibility of growth and change. Whether this positive resolution counter-balances the vulgarity and violence within the text enough to render it worthy of a child audience, is up to the individual buyer to decide.
Reviewed by Julie Thorndyke