#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

This is a novel – an exceptional one – about death and grief, about a family living through the aftermath of the loss of a child, and not coping. As a reader you suffer the ‘discomfort’ too, but you continue reading because the writing is daring and beautiful; because this remarkable young writer is articulating, in an exquisite way, something radically profound. The Discomfort of Evening explores the dark areas of the mind and soul, and the struggles and self-destruction of three children, Obbe, Jas and Hanna, and their parents, after the drowning of the family’s oldest child, Matthies. It is a shocking and disturbing novel, but also thrilling, narrated in the first person by ten-year-old Jas, who believes she caused the death of her brother by making a childish bargain with God.

Jas is hyper-alert, highly imaginative, absorbs all she sees and hears, and is horribly slapped around by the tragic combination of being a child, suffering an inconsolable loss and belonging to a devoutly religious family. After Matthies’s death, his parents become increasingly silent, introverted and selfish in their grief, and Jas is not invited to express her feelings either; instead she describes her loss in abundant metaphors and similes of everyday life:

‘Although they said nice things about my brother, death still felt ugly and as indigestible as the lost tiger nut we found days after a birthday party behind a chair or under the TV cabinet.’

Only once is Jas asked if she misses her brother, and that is by the predatory village vet. Church attendance and belief in God should suffice, the strict Reformist community believes. But Jas’s doubt in God grows: ‘Maybe He’s on holiday, or He’s dug himself in. Whatever it is, He’s not exactly on the case.’

Jas darts from subject to subject like a butterfly, delivering energetic streams of consciousness, dictated by the logic of her lively thoughts and language:

‘Matthies always parted his hair in the middle and put gel in his front locks. They were like two curls of butter on a dish; Mum always made those around Christmas: butter from a tub wasn’t very festive, she thought. That was for normal days and the day of Jesus’ birth wasn’t a normal day.’

The Mulders family runs a dairy farm in rural Netherlands at the turn of this millennium, although the novel’s oppressive atmosphere suggests it could be set in a distant Dutch Dark Age. The children are as familiar with animals as they are with humans, and as their grief and trauma are further suppressed, they become more animal-like in their behaviour. What might be considered natural sexual desire and experimentation in puberty becomes violent and incestuous. They know no better. The unhappy parents are themselves out of their depth. Their mother stops eating and states ‘I want to die’, so the children turn hyper-vigilant and devise rituals (killing the cockerel, for example) to keep their mother alive. They ‘feel eternally burdened, to take the weight off our parents’. Jas holds her grief in by refusing to defecate or remove her coat. If she takes it off she believes she will die. Her brother Obbe bangs his head incessantly against the wall. ‘Discomfort is good’, Jas says. ‘In discomfort we are real.’

At a certain point, of course, you think of Lord of the Flies, but with his cruel boys, William Golding was, in the immediate post-war, post-Holocaust period, making broader social and political observations about mankind’s potential for evil. Any great novel is greater than the sum of the words it contains, and, like Lord of the Flies, Discomfort is a great novel – in an outstanding translation (Michele Hutchison has the golden touch) – but I don’t believe that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s prime concern is to grandly expose society’s evil; rather it is to see how far this one family might fall, in order to see how far the writer can go. How difficult it is to write as an adult about childhood, to write without sentimentality about death and grief, to write about sex and intimate bodily functions without being pornographic or scatological. There is no artifice to this writing. It is astonishing, often funny, tender and joyfully exuberant. But there is no heavy-handed moral message; these children have been failed by their parents and their community.

Life on the farm continues. Foot-and-mouth infects the cows and they must be slaughtered. The fragile, now-feral children are therefore catapulted to confront and carry out further horrors. The violence inside Jas she describes as ‘becoming noisy’. Violence ‘grows and grows, just like sadness. Only sadness needs more space and violence just takes it’.

Recovery for Jas is seen as a journey, as escaping one day from her home and village to ‘go to the other side’. On the fateful evening that her brother Matthies left to go skating on the lake, she had asked to go with him. He told her that she was still too young to ‘go to the other side’ – of the lake, in this case. When will she be ready? she now wonders.

Knowing that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has lived a similar life, also lost a brother as a child and still lives on a dairy farm, underlines the authenticity and rootedness of the novel, a Dutch bestseller in 2018. It’s hard to believe it’s a debut, but easier to understand its provenance when you read Rijneveld’s poetry (we feature three poems exclusively, following this review, in advance of their publication in English). Rijneveld, whose pronouns are they/them, is an intriguing person, their unique approach to life, their wit and dazzling talent shining through every interview: ‘Farming keeps me grounded. The cows are my best friends; I like cleaning out the stables and shovelling the shit.’

In August 2020 The Discomfort of Evening became the first Dutch book to be awarded the International Booker Prize. At twenty-nine Rijneveld was also the youngest author to win the £50,000 prize, split equally with their translator, Michele Hutchison. On winning Rijneveld said: ‘I can only say that I am as proud as a cow with seven udders.’

Rijneveld has also published two anthologies of poetry and their debut collection Kalfsvlies (‘Calf’s Caul’, translated by Hutchison) will be published in English soon. The themes are so similar that I see Calf’s Caul and Discomfort as companion volumes, the images and ideas of the novel perfectly distilled in these narrative poems about childhood, religion and death:

‘my childhood when God was a father figure and my mother still lonely, that
my truth in the village was later my lack, everything I said scrubbed away with
green soap.’

After the shock of the novel (however rich and impressive it is), I feel comforted by the poetry, more deeply moved by the poet’s wisdom and the child’s trauma, perhaps because it echoes more closely Rijneveld’s own experience. It is also, frankly, less gruesome:

‘We weren’t allowed to ask questions but we were allowed to think up answers, Mum cried 
a lot back then, none of us taller than a metre, and she taught us that death
had an echo that whispered deep in your eardrums’

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s literary journey has just begun. We have so much to look forward to. Their new novel, Mijn lieve gunsteling (‘My Dear Favourite’), has just been published in Dutch. A story of farming life, a vet and a farmer’s daughter who become obsessed with each other, and, according to the author themselves, ‘a heartbreaking yet terrifying tale of loss, forbidden love, loneliness and identity’. The themes may appear familiar to readers of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld but I reckon that this highly original writer will always surprise us.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING

Written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Translated by Michele Hutchison

Published by Faber (2020)

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Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: March 2021 – The Dutch RiveterReviews

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