The Mussel Feast is a modern German classic, first published in Germany in 1990. In the opening scenes, a mother and her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their father. Mother has spent hours scrubbing four kilos of mussels in ice-cold water and preparations are underway for a feast of mussels as they are her husband’s favourite meal. She doesn’t care for mussels herself, but her husband has been away on a business trip, one which was destined to be the final step on his path to a big promotion.
But something is not quite right; it’s three minutes past six and father hasn’t arrived. And the family always has dinner at 6pm on the dot when father is due home.
Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension. (pgs 11-12, Peirene Press)
The novella is narrated by the daughter and it soon becomes clear that all is not well within this family. While they wait, they stare at the rather creepy-looking mussels which have ‘created a morbid atmosphere in the room’. The three of them start to talk, expressing thoughts they’ve never dared to mention before. And as the story unfolds, we discover how the family is forced to conform to a strict schedule when father is around. His business trips, however, give mother and her children the opportunity to experience a taste of freedom from such constraints:
There were cheese rolls and hot chocolate, we ate whenever we wanted to, sometimes standing up in the kitchen and with our hands. I don’t think we ever ate with a knife and fork when my father was away. We let our hair down while you were away, Mum said when my father asked, what did you get up to without me; it’s really nice to let your hair down a bit sometimes, Mum continued slightly wistfully, because she had as much fun as we did and less work, too, when we were alone with her. We seldom argued, and I liked it when we let our hair down, but my father didn’t want to hear any more of it and so she switched to wifey mode. (pgs 18-19)
Over the course of the narrative, we learn a little more of the family’s past and how they escaped from East Germany to the West. Ashamed of his underprivileged background, father is now fixated with status and notions of what constitutes a ‘proper family’. He’s the logical one, the scientist, a man of reason; he despises weaknesses in others and nothing his children can do is ever ‘good enough’. His family remain a constant source of disappointment. By contrast, his wife is the true bedrock of the family, the practical and thrifty one. And yet she’s emotionally sensitive too; she values beauty, nature and music, things for which her husband has little time.
As the daughter’s uninhibited monologue continues, we gradually discover more shocking examples of father’s tyrannical behaviour. He subjects the children to intimidation and physical abuse, so much so that his daughter cannot bear the sight of a wall unit in the living room, her ‘head having been smashed against it on a number of occasions’. Vanderbeke deftly slips these chilling details into the teenager’s revelations as the story unwinds.
There’s a looping rhythm to the daughter’s narration as she returns to the same thoughts and phrases, almost reflecting the way the family has become constrained by a fixed pattern of behaviour. But it’s the small, yet significant, disruption to the family’s usual routine that prompts them to challenge their situation:
Shortly after seven Mum said, I do hope nothing’s happened; and out of pure spite I retorted, what if it has, because all of a sudden my father was a spoilsport in my eyes, or, to be more precise, a mood-wrecker. Suddenly I no longer wanted him to come home, even though an hour earlier, as I said, we all were prepared for him to walk through the door and ask, so, what do you have to say, because he’d been successful. Mum looked at me, not as horrified as I’d expected, but with her head to one side, and then she smiled and said, well, we’ll see, and she didn’t sound as if she’d find it surprising or even terrible if he didn’t come home. (pg 22-23)
In one sense, The Mussel Feast gives us a portrait of an abusive father and how such a figure can stifle the joy and spontaneity of family life. On another level, the narrative can be read as a possible allegory for the uprising against the oppressive political regime in place in East Germany at the time of the novel. A quote from Vanderbeke on the back cover reads: ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’
The Mussel Feast is a slim novella, yet it offers much food for thought. I noticed more subtleties in the narrative on a second reading – additional nuances, more darkness and flashes of droll humour. Vanderbeke has skilfully crafted a heartening and moving story, and it’s superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, too.
I’m delighted to see this book on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. Peirene Press do such a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European gems such as The Mussel Feast, many of which are written by women writers, so it’s great to see one of their leading novellas in the spotlight.
I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Mussel Feast: Stu, Tony Malone, Bellezza, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (10th April 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.
The Mussel Feast is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy.