The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is the second novel published by Peirene Press that I’ve read this week. I’m a sucker for an attractive cover and was initially seduced by the illustration and production design of Peirene’s publications; though now I find that I’m addicted to contemporary European literature and can’t wait to get my hands on another.
I started off with The Blue Room, Hanne Ørstavik’s brilliant novel about a young woman’s relationship with her mother. The protagonist Johanne, finds herself locked inside her bedroom on the day that she is due to fly out to America with her boyfriend. Ørstavik’s writing is so fluid and delicate, and the voice so convincing that I became completely immersed in the novel and entirely believed that I was party to Johanne’s private thoughts, while at the same time questioning her reliability as a narrator.
Again, in The Mussel Feast, the story is told from the point of view of a young woman, who reveals details of her family life, and in particular the tyrannical character of her father, in the course of an evening spent with her brother and mother. The father is absent, and yet we come to know him intimately, and find that his controlling influence overshadows their lives.
Vanderbeke wrote this, her first novel, in three weeks in August 1989, as she and the whole country anticipated a major geopolitical transformation. Germans were unsure exactly what form these political changes would take, but were certain that Europe was on the brink of some historical event (the Berlin Wall fell in November of that year). Vanderbeke describes the titular mussel feast as a “perfect metaphor” for Germany and the novel as a political study of how revolutions happen. The family has been moulded by the dictatorial father into what he considers to be a ‘perfect’ family unit, but the whole system collapses very quickly.
Certain themes and motifs crop up in my own writing and also in the books that I choose to read. This isn’t deliberate, but subconscious. Locked doors and enclosed rooms function in these novels by Ørstavik and Vanderbeke as metaphors for claustrophobic and controlling relationships, and also as symbols of the main characters’ inability to escape their self imposed limitations. Both authors have great psychological insight and understand that a victim of abuse internalises the control mechanisms imposed by their abusers, so that eventually they modify their own behaviour.
In both cases, the subject matter is handled with a lightness of touch, which makes what may sound like dark and heavy themes, very easy to read. A pleasure to read, in fact. The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room are my favourite novels I’ve read so far this year and I highly recommend them.