Book Review - You Would Have Missed Me and The Mussel Feast

Germany’s authoritarian past haunts Birgit Vanderbeke’s exploration of patriarchal tyranny in The Mussel Feast (2013) and You Would Have Missed Me (2019). The two novellas, published by Peirene Press and superbly translated by the ever-reliable Jamie Bulloch, are set in postwar West Germany. Both feature dysfunctional families - violent fathers, ineffectual mothers and unnamed daughters - who have fled the oppressive East.

You Would Have Missed Me opens in the early 1960s. The nameless girl is seven years old. She yearns to be given a kitten for her birthday but always receives the same present –Wolfi the doll whose porcelain head soon falls off. This year, it’s a huge globe which she accidently dents. “You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.” Her mother sings the same song about loving the day she was born, but the girl knows it’s a lie: “my mother told me about my birth, and when she was finished with that she said, I loved you nonetheless…Rather no love than nonetheless, I thought, because basically you couldn’t do anything with nonetheless.”

The girl had lived with her mother in a refugee camp before her father joined them and they were granted workers’ accommodation in a housing development. Despite the relative “freedom” of the West, their lives are far from ideal. Her mother teaches while her father works night shifts in the local factory. He has a good degree from East Germany but in “the Promised Land…things were done differently.” He has to bide his time and work up from the bottom of the ladder.

The atmosphere at home is toxic. Her mother taunts her Belgium-born husband, reminding him of the wealthy fiancé she had hoped to marry before he’d been shot in the back. He sneers in response: “You’re an old Nazi and always will be,” and delights in reminding her, “you lost the war.” The girl takes the brunt of their marital dissatisfaction and lives in fear of her father’s violence. Her mother provides no reliable buffer against his moods and inflicts her own damage – denying her daughter water, using food as a means of control, and reporting any “misbehaviour” to her husband. The girl relates her experiences in a grimly ironic tone and with a worldliness beyond her years.  

Vanderbeke wrote her debut novel, The Mussel Feast, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Winner of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, it is now on Germany’s school curriculum. A teenage girl and her younger brother await the return of their father. Their mother has prepared a huge pot of mussels because they are her husband’s favourite meal. Over the course of an evening, we learn that their father is a serial abuser whose absence liberates them. A family and a nation teeter on the edge – freedom in both their sights.

The girl offers wry anecdotes to illustrate her father’s obsession with status in the West. Despising “the smell of poor people,” he liked to splash out on sharp suits. He derides his wife who, worried about getting into debt, buys only bargain clothes for herself and her children. The daughter’s observations gradually become more chilling. “He was extremely assured in his taste;” she observes. “he didn’t like his taste being questioned. I couldn’t bear the wall unit, as I told them that evening, due to my head having been smashed against it on a number of occasions.”

It is as though Vanderbeke is revisiting the same family at different periods in their lives. In both novellas, an ambitious father resents his lack of prestige and takes it out on his family. He lashes out in violence, often interrogating his victims before beating them. He denies his wife the opportunity to make her own choices and suppresses any attempt at creativity. A child is thrown against a wall to stop her crying. Her bones do not knit together and she walks with a limp.

Both daughters love books. In You Would Have Missed Me the girl is looked after by three middle-aged refugees who feed her and teach her to read. Books, imagination and dreams of travel offer refuge from a father’s tyranny. In The Mussel Feast, the girl has “come of age” and, better able to withstand her father’s bullying, locks herself in a room with her books. He cannot reach her there. There are clear parallels between the wider malaise that infects Vanderbeke’s fractured family and the trauma that defined a divided Germany. 

Origonally published by Elit - The German Riveter