Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast is a classic in the author's native Germany, where it was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1990. It won the prestigious German-language literature award, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, that same year. It has recently been translated into English by London-based Peirene Press.
I loved this book so much, I read it twice — when it initially came out in May and then again last weekend. It's a tiny package, but reading it is like peeling an onion: there are so many layers that it's almost impossible to appreciate them all first time round.
On the face of it, the story appears to be a very simple one. A woman and her two teenage children sit around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the father is late and there is no word from him to explain his delay. Why has he not called? Has he been in an accident?
In the meantime — as the mussels grow cold and the wine gets consumed — the daughter begins to recall memories of her father and his role in the family. This is when the story takes on a deeper purpose: to show that there is more going on than meets the eye.
What emerges is a rather startling portrait of a tyrannical man, whose idealised version of what constitutes a family and family life can never reach his unrealistic expectations. And instead of drawing everyone together, he has splintered his family apart by his funny notions and cruel ways. It is, essentially, a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Odd ideas and notions
It turns out that the father has some rather odd ideas but is so convinced by their "rightness" that he can never be properly challenged on them. So, for example, when the children are growing up, he never lets them play outside in the fresh air with the neighbourhood children on a Sunday afternoon, because one of his "notions about a proper family dictated that all of us should all do something together" — this usually meant a very long drive, but by the time they arrived at their destination the car park would be full and their father would become furious.
He also has very funny ideas about money and thinks "that scrimping on investments is the height of provincialism". He lives in fear of being seen as stingy or poor. This means he is overly generous with his tips at restaurants, despite not being able to afford it, and considers any clothes bought off-the-peg as "rejects".
You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don't have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn't have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you're throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it's not heaps, and, I can't help it if you're stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk.
Humour in the horror
This may make the book sound like a rather grim, depressing tale, but the beauty of Vanderbeke's narrative is the highly nuanced and intelligent "voice" which lets us "read between the lines" and catch glimpses, not just of the terror at the heart of these people's lives, but of the hope and wit too.
And because the story is narrated by the daughter, in one long, often repetitive, hypnotic monologue, the picture that emerges feels authentic and real.
I wouldn't describe it as a black comedy, but I laughed a lot while reading this book — mainly at this man's preposterous ideas and the ways in which his wife and his children humoured him. You get a very real sense that he is tolerated, perhaps even respected, but the first chance they get to live their lives the way they want to live them, they will take it — with both hands. If he doesn't appear at the dinner table, then perhaps it won't be such a tragic turn of events after all...