The first novella of the Peirene Press 2013 collection is Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, a reference to an evening meal of a family for whom a mussel feast signifies a special celebration and provokes a familiar family ritual.
This evening however, is a an event (or a non-event) of angst-ridden anticipation, as the mother and her teenage son and daughter prepare the feast and wait for their father to return from work with news that was supposed to have been a given.
There is little action or plot, though much is revealed throughout the course of the evening via the reflections of those present, who, as the minutes and hours pass, become emboldened in their thoughts as they are allowed to run on unchecked and unchallenged by he who normally acts as judge.
Just observing how the words fill up entire pages of this novella, creating a seamless run of sentences without pause or paragraph is admirable and makes me pause in my reading to check if every page is formatted the same, And it is. The constant stream of words is synonymous with an outpouring of frustration, the way the words are presented on the page like a revolutionary act itself. No dialogue, no action, a stream of consciousness charting the psychological passage of a family through the familiar acts of a routine that will manifest in wilful rebellion.
The Mussel Feast should be a cause for celebration when the routine is adhered to. When a crack opens in the routine and the feast is spoiled, who knows what uncharacteristic behaviour may follow.
An original and thought provoking read, one I devoured easily, as promised by Peirene, it is unique in its ability to keep the reader engaged while using a narrative style that is less popular today and yet succeeds in captivating its audience.
The first of her 17 novels, I look forward to reading more of her work and would love to hear any recommendations from others who have read her work.
“I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.” Birgit Vanderbeke
Next up in Peirene’s Revolutionary Moments series is Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson, which from the reviews I have read, already sounds just like my kind of book…
I love that the style itself made you pause in your own reading to check the formatting. Perhaps forcing you to join in on the characters’ mood of anticipation of the final creation (of the meal/the book). I will definitely go out and read this one; thanks for pointing it out!
The style and its corresponding formatting was very intriguing and a challenge to the author to keep the reader engaged, which she does brilliantly. No wonder it is a classic and great that it has been translated into English.
112 pages of streaming dialogue without chapters, that must have been an experience in itself! Yet another example of a different sort of writing technique.
Perhaps something like being glued to a television watching a film, eyes following the stream of words without pause.
I loved the way she unwound the families story but by bit as they waited for the fathers return just shame wasn’t translated earlier as would been lot more meaningful years ago all the best stu
Clever indeed, it is amazing how much we learn in the course of the preparation of one meal and one evening.
Though it was written at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps it is appropriate for it to be returning to our consciousness now, in an era where another wall is in the process of being built and dividing people and many populations uprising in many countries. Revolutionary moments are in constant flux.
Beautiful review, Claire! I was really looking forward to reading your first Pereine book review. ‘The Mussel Feast’ looks like a wonderful book. Very German, because of all those page-long sentences 🙂 Nice to know that the translation reflects that. The story looks powerful and makes me think of the Kate Winslet / Jodie Foster / Roman Polanski film ‘Carnage’. It is interesting that the book was published in 1989 and is only now getting translated. I will add this to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review.
I may find myself with an special appreciation for the way this book is written for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m currently reading ‘Ulysses,’ a book hardly intended to be read in a single sitting (but one that really does move with a rhythmic kind of trope that I may well have more of an appreciation for now than in my college days when I first encountered the book).
OK that’s made my mind up. I’m taking out a subscription today.
Yes! I am sure you won’t regret it and maybe we can plan to be one of those literary salons sometime in the future!
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