I took a break this week from the long book about China that I’ve been reading for a quick read-The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke.
It’s the first book by Peirene Press that I’ve read and while I had heard of them, I didn’t know quite what their mission was. So I amused when I reached the end to read the description of their output, “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting”, because I had indeed just spent the last two hours reading the entire book. Despite the fact that I had started it an hour before bedtime!
Before I had read either one, I kept confusing The Mussel Feast with The Dinner by Herman Koch. Both were published in English in 2013 (though The Mussel Feast was originally published in German in 1990) and I saw lots of people reviewing them around the same time. I think my confusion is understandable since both are told from the perspective of a single meal. Also, as with The Dinner, I’d love to have a book group to discuss The Mussel Feast with.
What’s great about The Mussel Feast is how well it conveys the psychology of a troubled family and the divisions and loyalties involved. With some ominous foreshadowing, a teenage girl describes her family’s preparation for her father’s return from a business trip, from her mother going into ‘wifey mode’ to the fact that the girl and her brother don’t help clean the mussels so that it won’t be their fault if their father finds a bit of grit in one.
The father is someone who raises his own opinions and traits to the level of moral judgement. His way is the only acceptable way to be. To give a relatively trivial example, he berates his family members for their weakness in being prone to sunburns when he himself can stay out in the sun for hours. And so every year, the family must vacation at his preferred sunny beaches. I don’t think he’s a character that I was supposed to relate to, but I found that I did. I like to think I’ve gotten better about it over the years, but I do remember, for example, telling a friend that she was a less worthwhile person simply because she didn’t want to go out on the porch to watch a thunderstorm!
These family dynamics could happen anywhere, but there are also some ways in which the novel is specific to Germany. The family had migrated from East to West Germany (as did Birgit Vanderbeke’s family) and this history has affected them. It’s also not hard to see the family as representing a country with the authoritarian father playing the role of the government.
There’s a note from the author on the back cover that she wrote the book immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I find interesting because I would otherwise have assumed that it was written immediately after the wall fell. And I think knowing that shifts my interpretation a bit, knowing that it was written at a time when it could be seen that something was coming to an end, but the nature of the actual end was unknown.
Ultimately, I think The Mussel Feast is notable for the fact that it simultaneously works really well as an allegory and it also stands on its own as the story of a family.
It seems that I have been getting a lot out of reading author interviews lately. Here’s one with Brigit Vanderbeke (and with links to interviews with the translator and editor): http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/the-mussel-feast-interviews-part-1-meet-the-author/