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February 19, 2024

The Mussel Feast: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke.

It's astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different -- and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other's heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal. - from The Mussel Feast, page 34 -

A woman toils over her tub, scrubbing mussels in cold water because it is her husband's favorite meal even though she does not care for them. As she and her two teenage children -- a boy and a girl -- sit down with their pot of mussels, they await the father's return home from work. The time passes and the father does not arrive. As the mussels grow cold in the pot, the reader discovers that all is not what it appears to be within this nuclear family.

The unnamed daughter narrates the story of her family where the father takes center stage. Early on she gives clues to the dysfunction which lies below the surface.

You see we all had to switch for my father, to become a proper family, as he called it, because he hadn't had a family, but he had developed the most detailed notions of what a proper family should be like, and he could be extremely sensitive if you undermined these notions. - from The Mussel Feast, page 22 -

As the tale unspools, the reader begins to see the unflinching control and brutality of the father who rules his family with an iron fist. The children are not allowed to enjoy the arts, since logic, math and science are all revered instead. The children wonder how many bones they will break if they leap from the window of their home. As the meal progresses, the mother and her children begin to express their true feelings about the father -- and they only feel safe doing so in solidarity with each other.

The Mussel Feast, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, was first penned in August of 1989 -- just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is the timing of the novella which gives the reader a clue into the symbolism found within its pages. East Germany severely restricted individual freedoms and the Berlin Wall symbolized the loss of freedom to many Germans. In Vanderbeke's novella, the family has recently left East Germany and now live in the West but the atmosphere in their home continues to be defined by a tyrant who controls everything they do. In his absence, the family begins to recognize the power they may have if they unite against him -- part of that is simply having the conversation. At one point, the mussels begin to shift in the pot and in dying, they begin to move, a unified group opening their shells and making noise. The narrator remarks:

Can't you hear anything, I asked. Listen! It's the mussels, my mother said, and I remember saying, isn't it awful, I mean I knew that they were still alive, it's just that I'd never imagined that they would make that rattling noise with their shells. I'd imagined they'd be cooked, eaten, and that was it. And my mother said, they're opening up and then the entire heap of mussels will start moving. - from The Mussel Feast, page 15 -

This is a powerful, darkly comic novella about how revolutions begin and how change unfolds in the face of tyranny. Deftly crafted, the narrative feels circular in nature and subtle plot lines become more obvious as the story unfolds.

Good literature is thought-provoking and esoteric in nature. I spent a couple of days thinking about this slim book after I turned the final page and found that I appreciated it more after giving it time to percolate in my mind. Readers who enjoy translated, metaphorical stories anchored in history will find a lot to love about this modern classic.


★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 : Four and a half stars out of five.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-03-18
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