Review: The Mussel Feast, By Birgit Vanderbeke (trs Jamie Bulloch)

Dinner time for daddy makes your flesh creep

Peirene publish distinctive European literary fiction in translation, by authors who are award-winners or best-sellers in their countries of origin. Birgit Vanderbeke is no exception. Her debut novel The Mussel Feast, originally published in 1990, won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and is on the school curriculum in Germany. She wrote it just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so it is the perfect opening title in Peirene's "Revolutionary Moments" series.

The Mussel Feast is narrated by a nameless teenage girl. Together with her mother and younger brother, she awaits the return of her father. Her mother has prepared a huge pot of mussels because they are her husband's favourite meal. The narrator ponders the cruelty involved in boiling the mussels alive and how they make a peculiar sound as they cook "which made me feel creepy … and the hair on my arms stood on end".

What makes our flesh creep as we too anticipate the father's return is the gradual realisation that he is a serial abuser. The daughter's narrative appears chaotic and unreliable, but she is actually restrained in her revelations. At first there are only hints of the man's controlling nature: he likes to eat at 6pm on the dot; on Sundays he always listens to Verdi; and "there was always a certain tension" when waiting for him.

There are various references to the family's exodus from East to West Germany, and some amusing anecdotes that illustrate the father's newly acquired snobbery and pettiness. Coming from an impoverished background, he is obsessed with status. Despising "the smell of poor people", he likes to splash out on sharp suits, drives a fast car, and tips generously. However, he derides his wife, who worries about getting into debt and buys only bargain clothes for herself and her children.

Then the daughter's observations become more chilling. Her wry comment "he could be extremely sensitive and unpleasant" proves something of an understatement. She makes the point that it is often a "random event" that provides the catalyst for radical change, and it is the father's break from routine, his absence, that allows them to question his peculiar notions of what makes "a proper family".

There is a political edge to Vanderbeke's provocative examination of patriarchal violence, and part of the power of this darkly comic tale is how well it succeeds as an allegory for political tyranny. The father's tactics for exerting control in the familial home are similar to those an authoritarian regime exercises to keep the people cowed. His frequent interrogations and brutal punishments have instilled fear and paranoia. The family are provided for, but denied the opportunity to make their own choices; and creativity is suppressed: the daughter's daily piano practice is restricted to an hour and her mother's violin lies broken in a wardrobe because the father deems music "pure excess".

When the mother finally takes a stand, her act of feminist self-assertion is as revolutionary as Nora's slamming of the door in Ibsen's 1879 play The Doll's House. It makes you wonder, how far have we really come? Given the current obsession with traditional family values, Jamie Bulloch's flawless translation is timely. The Mussel Feast will make uncomfortable reading for those who aspire to the ideal of the perfect nuclear family.