Issue 12: Vhcle Books: Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast)
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The meaning of the mussels themselves evolves throughout the story. The first page begins, “It was neither a sign nor a coincidence that we were going to have mussels that evening.” They start out as a welcoming and celebratory meal, and then as a symbol of the parents’ romantic relationship. Conversely, when they are cooked, their death is an obscene and indiscreet representation of surrendering. Our narrator “loathes surrendering”. In the end, they are a sign of a tyrannical head of household. Placed at the center of the table and of the conversation, the mussels serve as a useful focal point for the discourse.
Retrospect and analysis are constants in this narrative. The first page claims that mussels were “neither a sign nor a coincidence.” And later the narrator suggests, “Perhaps we would have stuck together if...” The reader is presented with hypotheses and then invited to make conclusions based on the evidence – a captivating method to say the least.
Vanderbeke has written this monologue as a stream of consciousness. The book starts, goes until it’s finished, then ends. There are no chapter breaks, no headings, little organization. Likewise, there are no dialogues as such – just descriptions of conversations interspersed with recounts of family moments and analysis. This style gives authenticity to the narrator’s voice and to the story.
At times, this can be very continuous, with many run-on sentences and long paragraphs; one paragraph runs for 26 pages. It can be slightly distracting, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone to read this book based on this factor. There is little need for a resting place in a book designed to be read in one sitting.
The translation is beautiful. Words flow smoothly in British English, and a handful of words increase the reader’s vocabulary without disrupting the flow of the text.
I loved this book, and I love the irony of the title. The Mussel Feast is not about a feast at all; in fact, not a morsel is eaten. However, it is a true feast for anyone hungry for food for thought.

Read this review in Issue 12

Sabrina Young is a California girl by birth and at heart, living in London. She drinks Sauvignon Blanc out of a Bordeaux glass, dances in the kitchen while eating all the cheese, and spends most of her time convincing her husband that Scrabble is a social activity. Sabrina works in alumni relations and loves learning.
Peirene Press was founded by Meike Ziervogel in 2008 with the aim of making European literature more accessible, to get people reading interesting material and thinking more. They hand-select three books per year that are under 200 pages and have received critical acclaim in their own countries, the idea being to satiate the hungry mind with a story that can be read in the time it takes to watch a film. With all this in mind, I was fairly confident from the outset that I would enjoy this book.
Das Muschelessen comes with interesting baggage; it was written at the cusp of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Author Birgit Vanderbeke explains that she wrote it because she wanted to explore how revolutions start. The family, she believes, was the logical setting for this investigation.
A mother and her two adolescent children sit around a pot of mussels waiting for their tyrannical father to arrive home. He is late, and as time wears on and routine continues to be disrupted the true nature of the family’s relationship is unveiled.
This story is not about plot. It’s about character development and a gradual exposing of the family’s true colours, and the development of an uprising. The characters are essentially in the ‘hot seat’, and we learn about them through their reaction to the situation at hand.
Narrated by a female adolescent in a family of four, we are given the opportunity to view the family through a daughter’s eyes. Although this viewpoint is not altogether uncommon, the clarity – or lack thereof – of this narration is rather unique. Vanderbeke really takes advantage of the narrator’s subjectivity, but I hesitate to attribute this subjectivity solely to her age. At times there is almost a sense of dramatic irony. Our unnamed narrator speaks of the requirements for being a “proper family”, and of her father’s “logical conclusions”, but it’s clear to the reader that this isn’t a proper family and the father’s conclusions are rarely logical. As the book goes on, one sees the narrator come to this realization, or at the very least, admit what she already knew.
The characters, except perhaps the brother, are complex. There is no protagonist and antagonist, no good guy and bad guy. Even the harsh and overbearing father is given some reason for his action, a little bit of sympathy, or maybe just sadness, for his questionable reaction to a poor upbringing.
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Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast)

Birgit Vanderbeke
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Reviewed by Sabrina Young
Vhcle Books, Issue 12
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