The latest slim volume from Peirene Press is an elegant tale by German author Birgit Vanderbeke, which is as tightly wound as its young narrator. Beginning with the seemingly joyful preparation for a father’s return from a business trip, cracks soon begin to appear through the celebratory veneer, widening and splintering as the father fails to materialise at the expected time and the night wears on.
The dad, seen through the eyes of his teenage daughter, is a man with a very specific idea of how family life should be. Having escaped with his wife and two children from East to West Germany just a few years previously, it’s seems that this success heightened his expectations of their behaviour and appearances to unreasonable levels. That’s the excuse hinted at, but we’re left for the most part to deduce this fact for ourselves, along with the actions he is being excused for.
At first all seems well – the mother and daughter are absorbed in preparing mussels for the evenings feast and the only sign of disgruntlement are two small seemingly inconsequential lines, the mothers’ comment that she doesn’t care for mussels much, and the fact that her hands are bright red from scrubbing the mussels under the cold tap: “because my father hated nothing more than grains of sand crunching between his teeth.”
As the novel progresses, though, it becomes clear that this isn’t quite true – the father hates many things; nothing is ever quite good enough.
Yet Birgit takes her time in revealing the true implication of this. Birgit’s writing, as translated by Jamie Bulloch, is deft and fierce, with long, escalating sentences that make you breathless and increasingly anxious, along with the protagonist. The almost throw away mentions of their mother’s switch to ‘wifey mode’, of a bloody nose, of the way their Sundays would suddenly be ‘over’, the dread of spoiling their father’s mood, all add up to painting a picture of a terrifying man, made up almost entirely from the shadowy glinting gaps between the words.
It’s a racing, powerful, heart-pounding read, and a reminder that so many seemingly perfect families hide dark, fearful truths beneath their surface.