The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

The mussel feastThe Mussel Feast is German classic – a set text in schools there, but this year is the first time it has been translated into English. It’s about a family (a mother, a son and a daughter) waiting for the father to get home from one of his business trips. The mother has cooked a special meal of mussels for his arrival, but he’s late. They wait. They drink. They begin to talk.

It’s one long monologue from the daughter’s perspective – a kind of stream of consciousness that meanders between the family’s life in the past and waiting with the mussels for the father to get home on the present. I don’t always like that style of writing (particularly as there are no obvious points to stop), but I really enjoyed it in this book. I think it’s partly because it’s short (at roughly 100 pages) so I didn’t need a break, but also because it just flows so well. The daughter’s voice is strong and spot-on teenager, so it does feel as though you are inside her head looking out and not just watching her thoughts from the outside.

It’s the kind of book in which nothing much happens at all but at the same time something monumental happens. We learn, through flashbacks, about how the father has taken control of the family and they in turn play by his rules and keep him there. In the present, as it gradually becomes clear to them that father isn’t coming home, small, seemingly insignificant changes to their usual routine (such as not watching the news) become revolutionary. They begin to talk, honestly, about family life and question the father’s authority. Little happens, but something huge has changed.

It’s surprisingly funny in places, and unsurprisingly horrifying in others. The father is inflexible, clear on the idea of what a ‘proper family’ should be and do and look like; the rest of the family must conform. Naturally they don’t, so have spent their lives trying to fit their square-shaped selves into round holes. The daughter has some small victories (being a good student means no one notices if you sneak to the cinema), but, like her brother, often has to pay with a beating. The mother, on the other hand, shifts herself into different personas to fit the father’s view of a ‘wife’ (which itself puts distance between her and her daughter).

There’s a lot in this short book, and I can see why it’s studied formally. The back blurb from the author talks about how she wrote it just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a way of understanding how revolutions start. But aside from all the allegorical stuff, it also works as a stand-alone story about family dynamics. An excellent quick read that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve mentioned Peirene Press before in my book subscriptions post. They are definitely worth a look if you’re interested in reading some contemporary European literature – they only publish novellas in translation so they’re all short and sharp.

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One Response to The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

  1. nrathmell says:

    I wrote about The Mussel Feast a few weeks on my blog – http://nrathmell.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/the-mussel-feast/ – and agree with your comments. The latest from Peirene Press, ‘Chasing the King of Hearts’, is well worth reading too.

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