The Beach at Night is a book for children — short (21 pages of text, along with many full-page illustrations (by Mara Cerri)), printed in large typeface, and narrated by a five-year-old girl’s doll. It is a simple but also dark tale: the girl, Mati, and the doll, Celina, have a good relationship, but in the excitement of the father bringing Mati a cat, Minù, Celina is forgotten at the beach at the end of the day and spends an unpleasant night. There is a happy ending — a very happy one, as pretty much everything gets sorted out as dawn breaks the next morning — but Celina certainly had some heavy experiences up to that point.
Ferrante sets the scene effectively, from Mati’s brother dumping sand on her as he digs a hole — helping ensure she’s overlooked when they leave the beach — to Celina’s dislike of the cat that has, in an instant, usurped her role and gets all the attention. She still believes in Celina, however — “Maybe it’s just a game she invented to scare me”, she rationalizes.
Celina doesn’t just have to deal with the elements, but also the Mean Beach Attendant and the Big Rake, who rake her up, along with all the rest of the end-of-day detritus left on the beach. Looking over their haul when they’ve raked everything together they’re disappointed by the ugly doll — but still see some possibility of cashing-in, suspecting she “still has words in her”. Celina does, but suppresses them:
I quickly collect all Mati’s words and hide them in my chest. Only the Name she gave me stays behind.
That’s not enough to impress the Mean Beach Attendant and his colleague, and Celina’s fate looks to be sealed in very unpleasant fashion. She struggles to hold onto her words and identity, but the forces working against her — human and natural — are near-overwhelming. Respite, of sorts, comes underwater in the ocean — where: “The words that Mati taught me are quiet. They float inside my chest, inside my stomach” — but the Mean Beach Attendant hasn’t given up on fishing her (and them) out.
It all works out, however: an unlikely savior comes and brings Celina back into the family fold, where Mati has been crying all night over her lost doll.
While everything works out, Celina’s trials are very menacing, and elemental as they are — literally too (fire and water), as well as the no less discomfiting attentions of the big males (promising, for example: “The tongue I slice / Right off, in a trice”) — may be too close for comfort for the kids. Ferrante’s focus on language (over anything physical) as the essential part of Celina helps make the physical discomforts slightly easier to take — but the concern about what happens when Celina loses her name and words, the fate she imagines, then is almost no less terrifying:
I won’t remember anything. I won’t know how to say anything, not even the dear name of Mati.
Unable to act — she’s a doll and she can’t move by herself — she’s at the mercy of those (and of nature) around her. All she has is her words — sufficient, when she’s with Mati, but overnight also putting her in more danger, because the Mean Beach Attendant wants them.
It’s hard not to see The Beach at Night as nightmare-inducing: between coming close to being burnt alive (well, doll-alive) and being submerged in the ocean, Ferrante’s descriptions can be almost too vivid. Then there’s the disagreeable figure of the Mean Beach Attendant, a constantly threatening presence. The affection, confidence, and trust Celina has in the mini-mother-figure that is Mati counters some of this, but one has to wonder whether it is sufficient.
Or, of course, one can consider that it’s okay to terrify the kids for a bit: after all, Ferrante does set everything calmly, nicely right again, in a very reassuring manner. But, yes, she only does so after all — and that all is quite a difficult journey to go through, for doll and reader alike.
Early American reactions — reviews in The Washington Post and The New York Times Book Review — also express concerns about kids being able to handle this sort of stuff. Or parents: a first objection is the use of the word ‘shit’ — so outrageous, apparently, that both reviews don’t even use the word (though leaving no doubt about it). Apparently, the United States remains so puritanical that one can’t print it in a family newspaper — much less a kid’s book. (A preview-piece in the Wall Street Journal also noted the presence of: “a four-letter expletive” and asked the editor in chief of publisher Europa Editions whether it would be changed for publication; even he said: “I should think so” at the time, though ultimately they decided against it.)
The expletive debate seems silly, but Nora Krug does have a point in her Washington Post review, that this instance of it also seems unnecessary, as there are alternatives which would not only be adequate but more fitting; indeed, here (“Open your maw / I’ve shit for your craw”) and elsewhere Ann Goldstein’s translation can have an overly harsh quality to it; given the darkness of the story, a bit of softening would not have hurt.
The early American reviews also express concern about the story’s ‘sexual overtones’, though this seems more like something American adults are more likely to read into the text (and every text …) and would go essentially unnoticed — certainly as sexual — by the kids. But you can see how some American adults might get hysterical about the first illustration, which shows Mati walking away from the half-buried doll on the still fairly crowded beach, her new cat resting on her shoulder — and the five-year-old doesn’t have a bathing suit on, her very tan-lined pale bottom fully exposed. (Presumably the public libraries that do purchase the book will be forced to put a sticker over that, and the *expletive* ?)
In these very sensitive times parents presumably want to be forewarned about this sort of content, and it’s probably a good idea for them to read the story before reading or giving it to the kids. The dark cover, and the fact that Ferrante wrote this, should be warning enough that this isn’t a light, comic read — but, everything else aside, one hopes at least that parents have enough faith in what their kids can handle to not be scared off of sharing it with them by the mention of the word ‘shit’.
Still: some caution is certainly advised: kids that are too young, very impressionable, or over-protected might not be able to handle this (not the ‘shit’, but the rest).
– M.A.Orthofer, 19 October 2016