I've just read two of the recently reprinted Rumer Godden's and been surprised to see both described as young adult books, which makes me think I'm not very clear about what young adult means. I've looked it up which has only confirmed a vague prejudice against the term, but perhaps that's my age showing because I find myself thinking 'in my day...' and that can't be a good sign. If I could choose though I would have 'The Mussel Feast' on the school curriculum here as it is in Germany - it's the sort of book young people ought to read.
The mussel's in the title are a well chosen food, I cook and eat them quite often because they're my partners favourite, I like them too, but there comes a point halfway through the meal when I suddenly find them repulsive (every time I eat them, and I really do like them up until that point). The other thing with mussels is how carefully they have to be observed - when you scrub them you need to make sure that every single one is closed and undamaged, when they're cooked you have to be sure that every one has opened. Get it wrong you face violently unpleasant (gastric) consequences.
'The Mussel Feast' is narrated by a teenage girl, she starts by looking back to a specific evening - were the mussels they were preparing an omen of things to come? No, she decides they were not, but they are a sign that her father is expected home from a business trip and his immanent arrival is causing some tension in the family. It always causes tension in the family. As the narrative unfolds it becomes more chilling. The father is slowly revealed as controlling, violent, manipulative, demanding, unreasonable, in short very dangerous to his family.
The family has escaped from East Germany to the West, but despite the promise of freedom I assume that would mean, the household is still a totalitarian state with obedience maintained by a system of division and intimidation. This night is different though, the father doesn't come home and the mother, brother, and sister start to talk. That small brake in routine is enough to shift the family dynamic. Each revelation and confirmation strengthens the bonds between the three as they wait - denial becomes harder, by the end of the evening some act of revolution, however minor, is inevitable and a gesture will be made.
We never find out quite what happens, I think it's just possible that the husband has cleared off with his attractive young secretary which raises the possibility that he's been as much a prisoner of the domestic situation he created as the rest of his family has. It's a book to think about, the parallels between domestic oppression and political oppression are impossible to miss, I keep thinking about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's 'One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich' (which I did read as a young adult, and at about the same time that Birgit Vanderbeke was writing 'The Mussel Feast') it's a book that's stayed with me as a great cry of unfairness and the two make good companions. 'The Mussel Feast' provides the hope that is missing from Ivan Denisovich - the possibility of change. It's a book that begs to be discussed and ought to be pressed on the young - it's just the book I'd like to see being given out on world book day...