Book review: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Revolutions can occur in the most extraordinary places ... and in the most extraordinary ways.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 5th March 2013, 9:00 am

From small acts of defiance to a national uprising, there comes a tipping point when change becomes inevitable.

The Mussel Feast, a German modern classic inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, springs from the sophisticated stable at Peirene Press, a London-based publisher which specialises in bringing the best of European fiction to English-speaking audiences.

The first in Peirene’s new 2013 ‘Turning Point’ series, Birgit Vanderbeke’s striking novella, written in the form of a monologue, is a true literary banquet – an extraordinary drama played out over one revolutionary evening in the life of a German family.

First published in 1990, the book has never been out of print and is on all high school curricula in Germany but has never been translated into English... until now.

Our narrator is a nameless teenage girl who sits at the dinner table with her mother and younger brother as they wait for the father to come home, hopefully with a new work promotion in the bag.

The harassed mother has been cooking up a huge bowl of mussels even though no one in the family likes them except her husband. But something’s not right. He’s late, and he always arrives back at 6pm on the dot.

As the three of them contemplate the rapidly cooling mussels and the palpable tension created by father’s no-show, their back story slowly unfolds in ever decreasing circles of throwaway lines and sinister allusions.

Because this absent man is no standard father and husband. Little by little, we learn that he is an intransigent, oppressive and cruel bully who keeps his wife and children subjugated by his disturbing notions of how a ‘proper family’ should look and act.

The family have fled from East to West Germany and he has brought with him deep grievances, a ruthless determination to prosper and an obsession with status.

Small incidents and acts of violence, stirred almost carelessly into the narrative, reveal a chilling, bigger picture. His family are an ‘endless disappointment’ – his mother ‘smells’ of poverty, his wife is too dowdy and likes music which he regards as ‘pure excess,’ his daughter too stubborn and insubordinate, and his son too ‘wimpish.’

So while the girl’s mother reverts to ‘wifey mode’ and stores her violin in a cold wardrobe, his desperate children are left wondering what bones they might break if they jumped from the flat’s first-floor balcony.

But, as the evening wears on, the family become emboldened by the father’s unusual absence and ‘at once everything is different... people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose.’

Translator Jamie Bulloch has done a sterling and sympathetic job to bring us the essence of a highly nuanced story, packed with significant metaphors and colloquialisms, without once losing the flow and meaning of the original text.

Peirene’s Meike Ziervogel reveals that this was the first of her publishing house’s books to make her laugh out loud and it is easy to see why. The inflexible logic of the authoritarian father’s mind leaves him wide open to bizarre and humorous contradictions, now pounced on with glee by his dissenting daughter.

But The Mussel Feast also serves up moments of incredible poignancy and shocking, understated violence, all side dishes to a subtle and yet powerfully affecting portrayal of domestic tyranny.

Vanderbeke’s brilliantly clever sign-off confirms both the family’s turning point and the optimism that springs from revolutionary freedom, whether that is achieved on the home front or the world stage.

Astute, darkly funny, provocative, often uncomfortable in its devastating depiction of patriarchal oppression but ultimately uplifting, The Mussel Feast provides plenty of food for thought.

(Peirene, paperback, £10)