Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

Release date: February 1, 2013 (first published in 1990)
Author links: Goodreads 
Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 105
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

The modern German classic that has shaped an entire generation.

A mother and her two teenage children sit at the dinner table. In the middle stands a large pot of cooked mussels. Why has the father not returned home? As the evening wears on, we glimpse the issues that are tearing this family apart.
"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." 

After reading Aki Ollikainen's White Hunger, I got interested about Peirene Press and its titles and went to the library to browse the shelves to see if they had any other titles available. I came across The Mussel Feast and picked it up without any prior knowledge about it. I usually tend to obsessively check Goodreads ratings for all books I plan to read, but with this one, I just opened the page and started reading (of which I am happy about because I think one of my Goodreads friends had rated this 1/5 and seeing bad reviews from people I follow always find of make me hesitant about picking up certain books).

The Mussel Feast focuses on a German family - mother, a daughter and a son - who are preparing mussels for dinner to celebrate the promotion the father of the family as inevitably received as a result of his business trip. The book is narrated by the unnamed teenage daughter in a very interesting manner. She is clearly reflecting on something that happened in the past, but rather than doing that reflection for example via a journal, the way she narrates the story makes it seem like you are listening to her delivering a spontaneous monologue or a speech of sorts. She repeats same things again and again, which mimics the style of speech that has not been written down in advance. I must admit getting used to this style of narration took me a couple of pages, but after I realized how the author has structured the story and started to wonder the reasons for why she has done so, I immensely started to enjoy this novel.

At first, the family chats about harmless things like about how much the father hates grains of sand on his mussels or how good the mother's chips are, but after the food is cooked and the father is a no-show, the story starts digging deeper and deeper into the dysfunctionality of the family and the terrorizing and bullying nature of the father. In some ways, there is a divide created between the family before the mussels were cooked, a family living in fear of the father's temper, and a family post-mussel cooking, a family that is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

As the novel processes, the clearer image you get of the father. While at first he seems opinionated and a little old-fashioned, later on he appears like a bully, like a selfish dick who thinks the right way to do things is his way to do things. Through the eyes of this unnamed female narrator we not only get a certain image of the father, but also of the mother, who has very much adapted her life into something that would please her husband. Within only a bit over 100 pages, the reader is introduced to a problematic family and situations that will definitely make one think about familiar relationships, about marriage, about "normalcy", and so on. 

I was very impressed by this book and the ways it made me think. Also, my positive reading experience of both this one and White Hunger have really made me curious about Peirene Press and the other books it has published.

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