The Mussel Feast, by Brigit Vanderbeke, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Peirene Press). A quick word about Peirene Press, who are doing some excellent things and deserve to be better known. They run a subscription service where you can get the three books they publish a year sent to you. Their specialism is contemporary European novellas that take less time to read than a film takes to watch. You should find out more about them.
The Mussel Feast concerns the disintegration of family life. A mother and her two children are getting ready to celebrate her husband’s promotion with his favourite food (mussels and chips) and his favourite sweet white wine. As he takes longer to turn up, we find out that he often gets what he wants, and the rest of the family get next to nothing. A deeply uncomfortable read abut domestic abuse in all its myriad forms, made all the more claustrophobic by the length of paragraph and overwhelming walls of formatted text. I love the way the form of the novel mirrors the stifling subject matter, but I did find the book difficult to get through because of it. Perhaps I was expecting something with more satire in it (it is said to be ‘hilarious’ on the reverse) and it really is not funny in any way. Nevertheless it is an excellent piece of writing.
The characters are brilliantly created, and the ever looming spectre of the father, who’s presence reaches far beyond his corporeal form, is masterful. I loved the descriptions of the pot of mussels sitting there, putrefying, as the time ticks onwards.
I thought it was great, but I didn’t enjoy it, and I find this confusing as it doesn’t often happen. It was probably a mix of bad timing (coming so soon after the brilliant A Meal in Winter) and just not being quite my thing, but that would in no way stop me from recommending this book if people are looking for a gritty kitchen sink drama to sink their teeth into on a rainy weekend. I don’t want to publish negative reviews, but I felt that for this particular novella it wasn’t the text that was the problem, it was me, so it deserved to be reviewed nonetheless.