Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Review: The Mussel Feast

The Mussel Feast The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the publisher blurb:
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.' Birgit Vanderbeke

Peirene intentionally publishes shorter, read in one sitting, translated works - it would have been hard to take much more of this one in the sense that you really get a sense of the dictator father and how his behavior has controlled the family. It is told from the perspective of the oldest daughter, and at least in the ebook there are no chapter or paragraph breaks. It's like being in the family yourself, oppressed with no end in sight.

I know it's supposed to be a metaphor for East Berlin and the wall coming down or something like this but it's also an uncomfortably accurate depiction of how one tyrannical person can limit the lives of the people he controls (okay, I see it now, this is also what happens in oppressive regimes, got it.)

The novel starts with the mother cleaning mussels for her husband's homecoming - he expects meals to be a certain way and she complies, even though as she has said on multiple occasions, she does not herself care for mussels. Everything must be done his way.

Another point in the novel, it says "...Music, my father said, was pure excess and would never get any engine started. He said this because ever since their escape to the West my mother’s violin had lain in their bedroom wardrobe, and only occasionally." He also refuses to go to the mountains for vacation, criticizes her appearance and wardrobe, and won't let the narrator play the piano.

I loved the ending, and will look for more from this press. I was happy to read this from the books I already had for Women in Translation month; this is translated from the German.

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