'The Mussel Feast' by Birgit Vanderbeke

Although not part an official part of mine and Sam's triumphant Peirene Press Readathon which came to a close last week, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is the newest Peirene Press publication upcoming so I thought I'd review it here using the same pattern as before. Regular readers of this blog will now be more than familiar with the Peirene brand (!) so will understand what I mean when I say that this book is the first in the 'Turning Points: Revolutionary Moments' series.

So,  in short, The Mussel Feast is about a small scale revolution that happens within a German family one night when the tyrannical father of the family does not come home as planned. Having fallen into a years-long pattern of submitting to his will - the children in the family are teenagers at this point - the mother has cooked mussels for his return even though no-one else in the household really likes them. Over the course of the evening, the children talk and the wine comes out and the facade of happiness falls even from the face of the mother, who has been a passively unhappy stoic in the face of her husband irrational wrath for many a year.

I loved this book - it's up their with the best of Peirene, and the best of modern literature. For a book so troubled in tone, I found it to be funny and inventive, and with surprising flashes of relatability to  familiar aspects of family life: 
 'Everything in our lives revolved around us having to behave as if we were a proper family, as my father pictured a family to be because he hadn't had one himself and so didn't know what a proper family was, although he'd developed the most detailed notions of what one was like...they may have been incredibly precise, but were impossible to fathom as none of us understood the logic behind them.'
Just last night I told my husband that we should turn the television off ans have a proper conversation, based, I suppose, on my ideas of how we, as our own little family, should behave :) The crux of the problem with this in the book  though is that the father is wholly rigid and arbitrary in his illogical rule-making - whilst feeling himself to be a last bastion of logic and science - and is inflexible enough not to be able to bend for such small family considerations as individual character or domestic happiness. What he says goes, until this fateful evening when he doesn't come home.
'And we glared at the mussels until my mother fetched from the fridge the wine meant for that evening's celebration. It was Sp├Ątlese, a special one...in fact we ought not to have been drinking it before my father arrived home, but we couldn't spend the whole evening staring at the vile mussels , with my mother feeling bilious. She opened the wine and we felt terribly insubordinate.'
I found it fascinating to consider this in light of the quote from Birgit Vanderbeke on the back of the book which says that she '...wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall...' as she wanted '...understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn it into a German family saga.' Suddenly the story means so many other things, and I found it very interesting to context the twists and turns of the narrative in the context of revolutions, both historical and recent.  The narration, which comes in a breathless, intuitively meandering first person from the teenage daughter, rings true with all the little asides and explanations that one would give in telling a secret family story, and I loved the intimacy that created between myself and the characters within it. As a reader, I pitied them, I laughed with them and I related to them, and by the end I wanted to throw those mussels out of the window and shake them all by the hand :)

As I said before, I loved this book. There was a bit about the father being particularly bad-tempered after being forced so sit down and do his tax return that had me laughing outloud, and, without giving the ending away, the story ends on a dynamic, hopeful note that makes reading it a satisfying and fulfilling roller coaster ride.  

The reviews in our Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Peirene Discussion Post #1 - Female Voices: Inner Realities

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (mine) ¦ Sam's 
Peirene Discussion Post #2 - Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (mine)  ¦ (Sam's)
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Peirene Discussion Post #3 - Small Epics: Unravelling Secrets

Title:  The Mussel Feast
Author:  Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Publisher: Peirene Press
Date: Original 1990, translation 2013
Format: Paperback, 105 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press to review as I wished.



  1. I can't wait for this one to come out as it sounds great, especially with the 1989 story lurking within the family's power struggles story. :)

    1. Hi Alex, yes, it's fabulous. You should be able to get your hands on a copy now. Let me know what you think!

  2. One of my favourites so far - very strong and powerful. One thing I'll say though is that I didn't find it quite as humorous as you (and Meike) did. There were some amusing bits, but I found the tone a little darker...

    My review can be seen here:


    1. It's funny how people can read the same book and find different things, isn't it? Kudos on doing your own translations btw :)


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