The English translation of The Discomfort of Evening, the debut novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and a bestseller in the Netherlands, has won* the International Booker Prize. It’s not hard to see why. The book, a juddering account of the fallout from a sudden family tragedy, is intensely raw, shockingly graphic, and as memorable a debut in Dutch literature as Nanne Tepper’s similarly feted novel of sibling dysfunction, The Happy Hunting Grounds (1995).
Jas is 10 when her oldest brother Matthies dies in a skating accident the day before Christmas. The family, part of a deeply religious farming community in North Brabant, goes into stasis. While their parents implode in different ways — the mother by incrementally refraining from eating, the father by isolating himself with his cattle — the three remaining children, emotionally neglected and forbidden to talk about Matthies, devise and act out increasingly dangerous rituals to deal with their grief.
Jas, the narrator, is the conduit for the extremes of suppressed emotion swirling around the farm. There is an unspoken anticipation that Matthies will come home: his coat peg is still by the door, his chair at the table is not to be used by anyone else. Jas blames herself, in the way that children do: she had suspected that her father was fattening up her pet rabbit for Christmas, and she prayed that God would take Matthies instead. Now all signs of Christmas have been banished and her brother is laid out in a coffin in the house: “Matthies’s face was as pale as fennel: his lips were purple from the cooling mechanism that kept him frozen. I wanted to turn it off so that he could thaw in my arms . . . I’d ask him whether this was really the right way to leave us.”
Rijneveld’s prose combines the formality of ceremony with a startlingly uninhibited obsession over the bodily functions of animals and humans living in uneasy proximity to each other: a challenge for any translator and one that Michele Hutchison embraces with verve. Of Matthies’s funeral procession, which evokes that of a medieval prince, Jas says, “the only thing that was right about that afternoon was that heroes are always borne aloft”. Later she muses on an image that will become recurrent: “Since the day Matthies didn’t come home, I’ve been calling us the three kings because one day we’ll find our brother, even though we’ll have to travel a long way and go bearing gifts.”
Jas, her brother Obbe and sister Hanna talk often of “the other side” and the “darkness”. They are at the stage of puberty when the innocent games of childhood can turn on a knife-edge. Their secret sexual exposure to each other, the most disturbing aspects of which are instigated by Obbe, who takes pleasure in torturing small animals, ramps up as the book progresses.
Jas’s attempts to hold in her sorrow lead to behavioural calamity: she sticks a drawing pin in her stomach in an attempt to centre psychological pain and smuggles two toads into her bedroom in a milk pail as substitutes for her parents — if they mate, somehow they and she won’t die — but in her ignorant cruelty lets them slowly starve to death. She suffers endless constipation, the “cure” for which involves semi-abusive interventions from her father (who sees little distinction between his family and the cows) and the predatory local vet.
A book this unvarnished has noticeable flaws. Aspects of Jas’s fixation on the physical can be violent, concerning and unpleasant to read. Lovelessness constantly swims unhappily to the surface; religious tropes abound, from the plague of foot-and-mouth disease to small, nasty sacrifices re-enacting the biggest loss of all — Matthies. There is a horrific sexual violation that appears to have no consequences. One begins to be anxious for any animal that crosses the children’s path.
Yet there is a bold beauty to the book, which for all its modernity seems to be set in a different age of automatic religious belief: the immensity and mystery of the universe coexisting alongside the claustrophobic community of farm, church and school. By using Jas’s everyday world as a metaphor for loneliness and fear, Rijneveld has created something exceptional.
The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison, Faber, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
*This review was originally published March 13 2020 and has been republished to highlight its International Booker prize win
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