It is perhaps the fact that Peirene Press deliberately select novellas, stories which encourage, if not demand, an uninterrupted reading, which allows them to forsake cheap gimmicks such as page-turning plots and immediately sympathetic characters in their choice of texts. Instead we are given something to immerse ourselves in, something where mood can be as important as action, and where the ordinary can slowly grow into the extraordinary. Their latest publication, The Mussel Feast by German writer Birgit Vanderbeke (yet another author brought into English for the first time, on this occasion at the hands of Jamie Bulloch) is no exception.
Its very title is the antithesis of thriller, and although the mussel feast is to some extent symbolic, the mussels are very real, opening the novel and only vanishing at its conclusion, “the shells rattling” as they are emptied into the dustbin. The story begins with a mother and her two teenage children preparing for their father’s return. Their father has gained promotion at work and the mussels are part of a celebratory meal:
“We would always have mussels to celebrate a special occasion, and this was a special occasion, though in a very different way from what we’d had in mind.”
As the family await the father’s return, we learn more about him and the influence he has on the rest of the family:
“…when my father was on business trips the thee of us told each other the most fanciful stories… Before my father came home, however, all these fanciful ideas vanished, especially my mother’s…switching to wifey mode when he came home.”
The father seems something of a tyrannical figure, imposing his values on the rest of the family, and the novella can be read as an allegory of East Germany before the wall fell, or as a critique of patriarchy. The father, we learn, has had to work his way up from poverty, whereas the mother is a teacher. The children are prevented from any activity they enjoy – for example the narrator can only practise her piano playing when the father is absent – and are frequently told how they disappoint him. He is not beyond punishing them physically:
“…he tried to use violence to knock the stubbornness out of me, just as he tried to use violence to knock the wimpishness out of my brother.”
It is the father’s non-appearance when he is expected that allows the family to experience a sense of freedom. The longer they wait for him the more they resent the effect he will have on them when he walks through the door. Vanderbeke’s ending emphasises, not the fate of the father, but the family’s will to resist him. If a novel is a banquet and a short story is a snack, The Mussel Feast is the perfect meal.