The English translation of The Discomfort of Evening, the debut novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and a bestseller in the Netherlands, was recently longlisted for 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Rijneveld writes poetry as well as fiction, which shows: Their prose, in Michele Hutchison's superb translation, shows a poet's interest in small, slow details. The novel, which is set on a dairy farm in a small village, is at once spare and luminous, haunting without calling attention to the fact. Rijneveld's sentences linger, as does their 10-year-old protagonist Jas's grief for her brother Matthies, who dies in the novel's first pages ... Bad dreams are a risk for readers here, but Rijneveld manages their novel's painful content delicately and well. Even the most wrenching scenes never seem gratuitous; they are thoroughly worth the emotional effort that Rijneveld asks their readers to make.
Discomfort is putting it mildly. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel, which has been longlisted for the International Booker prize, goes all the way to disturbing ... an unflinching study of a family falling apart in the madness of grief, rendered all the more unnerving for the childishly plain, undramatic way their compulsive behaviours are reported ... Rijneveld really doesn’t hold back with all this, poking sticky fingers into nasty places to stir up uneasy memories of prepubescent explorations of sexuality and mortality. The novel evokes a general curiosity and bewilderment with the adult world, here given two supercharged shots in the backside by the unspeakable (in all senses) tragedy of the brother’s death and the pressure of extreme religious beliefs ... Not everything works: Rijneveld seems to strain in search of an ending ... But this is a pretty remarkable debut. Confident in its brutality, yet contained rather than gratuitous, it introduces readers to both a memorably off-key narrator and a notable new talent.
As the title warns us, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening. The way grief relentlessly nibbles away at a family. The emotional and physical torment inflicted on and by children. At times it’s hard to read, and yet, this debut novel, which first appeared in Dutch in 2018, is also beautifully tender and consistently compelling ... Rijneveld, who grew up in a Reformed farming family, is a poet as well as a novelist, whose sensuous prose is filled with intoxicating imagery. Warts on a toad’s back resemble capers, while a vet’s black curls dangle like party streamers around his cheeks ... Michelle Hutchison’s translation is lucid throughout. If we weren’t seeing the world through Jas’s eyes, the mass of similes might start to grate. Instead, the images capture a child’s knack for disappearing into make-believe when things go wrong.
... an earthy and irreverent new voice, thrillingly uninhibited in style and subject matter ... The novel teems—I say this admiringly—with all the filth of life ... The title refers to the point in the evening when cows begin to low and call for relief, their udders heavy with milk. The story is about painful repletion of another kind, and of solace that never arrives ... The novel didn’t give me nightmares only because sleep became a faint possibility. Rijneveld will play to all your phobias and nurture new ones. Even now, my blood jumps to remember certain images ... It’s not the violence that feels so shocking—it’s the innocence. The violence in the book is visited on small bodies, mute bodies, by those who are themselves small, young, lacking in language ... However strong your readerly constitution, it might feel like a peculiar time to pick up a book so mournful and gory. And yet, I went to it every day without dread, with, in fact, a gratitude that surprised me. It was the gratitude of not being condescended to. Novels disappoint not only by being clumsily written or conceived but by presenting a version of the world that is simpler and more sanitized than we know it to be. Fiction about childhood is especially prone, with a few notable exceptions. The spaciousness of Rijneveld’s imagination comes as terror and solace. That lack of squeamishness, that frightening extremity, which, in Hutchison’s clean, calm translation, never feels showy or manipulative, gives full voice to the enormity of the children’s grief, their obscene deprivation.
I was ten and stopped taking off my coat.' This bare beginning marks the opening of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s startling and lyrical novel, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison: an introduction to ten-year-old Jas and the dislocated world of metaphor she inhabits ... Rijneveld’s portrait of Jas and her grief-stricken family continuously tests...boundaries of distress. A confrontation with lovelessness, loneliness, bodies and their limits, it’s a devastatingly vivid, minutely observed exploration of growing up in the aftermath of loss and under the pressure of increasing emotional neglect ... As an urgent portrayal of what it means to feel undone and shut in by grief, The Discomfort of Evening is an intoxicating, dark and highly original debut. It was a bestseller in Rijneveld's native Netherlands, and the English translation has recently been shortlisted for the International Booker prize. It's easy to see why.
The writing is beautiful and haunted with a bleak Dutch landscape in winter punctuated with the spartan activities of the farm and church life they inhabit. As a poet, Rijneveld wants us to feel the words in our bones. Details are grim and sharp, sitting heavy with the reader like bleeding wounds ... The book will upset anyone who cannot deal with animal cruelty in fiction. I cannot. At times, it becomes titillation ... The overtures of adult desire from their father and the farm’s vet for Jas are revolting, as are the scenes of sexual abuse between the children. But in it all, it’s not difficult to recognise something of our childhood in their thinking, and maybe that’s the hardest to admit. Some readers will not find much to cheer for in Jas’s cruelty, others will not care for her family as they gradually worsen in their treatment of each other. But Rijneveld’s motif of the old anorak that Jas refuses to take off is there to remind us that Jas is a victim, she’s a kid, that she’s unstable, that she’s suffering. For this reviewer, that wasn’t enough to explain the extreme animal abuse, nor was there much to take home from the story except one emotional beating after [the] next, albeit exquisitely done.
Having just finished the book, I get the visceral and the shame. The tenderness and the salvation are more elusive ... The novel is narrated by 10-year-old Jas, whose attempt to accept and understand her brother’s death is the most relatable and lyrical aspect of the book ... Jas’ unique sensibility is responsible for both the most disgusting and most winning moments in the book ... Let us not go into the vile treatments offered by her father and brother, which she in turn administers to both a cow and to a visiting school friend. At other times, Jas is funny, endearing and wise beyond her years ... The world I live in has a lot of problems, but I could not see The Discomfort of Evening as social commentary. I’ll go back to the Zoom meeting, I swear, no more complaints from me.
...the knowingness of the author sits in contrast to the narrator, who is 12 years old by the end of the book ... Everything is filtered through her eyes, a child who believes that her mother is hiding Jewish people in the basement and that killing an animal will save her family. Yet this is also a narrator who is curiously observant of other people ... In the English translation, the choice to break up longer Dutch sentences into shorter fragments, often by inserting semicolons and colons, subtly changes the tone of the novel, tempering the urgency of Jas’s breathless, slightly dreamy monologue. Translator Michele Hutchison deftly switches between registers and gives Jas a strong, unique voice ... Ultimately, the novel will find both admirers and detractors for its poetic, mannered language, realistic bleakness and descent into surreal darkness. The book doesn’t quite keep the promise of its compelling first part, where Rijneveld and Hutchison immerse us in Jas’s world with detailed observations: a dried-up raisin found under a cabinet, skin formed on warm milk. As the tragedies pile up and the narration intensifies, the fascinating characters and themes sometimes lose their immediacy amid dense prose.
... this childhood narrative of overwhelming grief, religious insanity, death and incest, cruelty and despair, is felt in the gut as much as it is in the heart. Some of its scenes, indeed, are almost unbearable: the mass slaughter of an infected dairy herd, for example, or a sexual assault involving farm equipment. Yet the novel’s power resides not in its ability to stun, but rather in the compressed grace of the author’s plain style—lucidly conveyed by the translator Michele Hutchison—which conjures up a hermetically sealed reality and an adolescent protagonist so believable and unguarded that from the outset we feel her closeness and fear for her safety ... a tale vibrating with tension and saturated with dread ... the novel never strays into fantasy. It remains rooted in the agricultural terrain of soil, seasons, crops and livestock, one the author knows intimately and depicts with pitiless accuracy ... an extraordinary feat of dark imagination that ends, fittingly, as we feared though never as we expected.
Poetry spills out almost everywhere in The Discomfort of Evening...although the novel's tender moments are few ... Some of the poems in the novel seem to work better than the prose, mostly because the poems are presented in tight little individual knots of feeling while the prose is looser and covers much more territory. It also drags at times ... The novel is unsettling from the first sentence ... Rijneveld blends thoughts of murder and suicide into the plot along with quotes from the Old and New Testaments. The juxtaposition adds a certain irony to the narrative, as scenes of violence and the voice of God sit uneasily on the page.
... astoundingly accomplished ... This is recognisably a poet’s novel: atmosphere (of the bleak and disturbing variety) is favoured over action and the world is interpreted through evocative, imaginative similes and metaphors ... a stunning novel that does what a child’s-eye narrative should do: reveal that, in the face of adult folly, a ten-year-old can show us the world as it really is.
...majestic dread ... Sly, surprising, gently chaotic, it’s the most singular and strident debut I’ve read in a long time ... Jas’s language is clean and plain, convincingly childlike, but strikingly poetic – even (or especially) when it is describing the mucky corporeality of rural life. The warts on a toad are like capers, the glands prone to ooze sour oil just like the edible green buds. The smells and excretions of the animals and the banal grotesquery of her interactions with them mount up to portray life as an unlovely thing. Matthies, in death, is pristine and beautiful, untouched even by conversation ... It isn’t a pleasant book to read ... Though tender, the novel resists narrative redemption, but provides its own kind of consolation through artistry and originality ... The magical thinking of this child produces a truly haunting and savage loneliness, communicated by Rijneveld with an agile intensity I have rarely encountered.
... poetic and layered, building tension as it moves toward its devastating and catastrophic conclusion. Dutch poet Rijneveld penetrates her characters with unflinching, razor-sharp intensity as they wrestle with issues of religion, sex, and death, making for a difficult if ultimately rewarding read.
... an unflinching examination of a family falling apart in the madness of grief, rendered all the more unnerving because of the childishly plain, matter-of-fact way in which the compulsive behaviour of the various family members are reported by Jas, our narrator ... Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who grew up with the values of the Dutch Reformed Church, paints a vivid picture of the constant struggle between the piously coercive and the perversely rebellious. The author does not hold back when it comes to poking into shadowy corners to stir up uneasy memories of prepubescent explorations of sexuality and mortality ... The author must be commended for succeeding in an area where many others have failed—fictionalized childhood, with a child as the narrator, is prone to embellishment, presenting the world as a simpler, sanitized space than we know it to be. Rijneveld’s lack of reservation, her frightening extremity—which, in Michele Hutchison’s lucid translation, never strikes to be ornamental or manipulative—gives full voice to the enormity of the children’s grief and their total deprivation when it comes to human affection ... Yet, the amount of violence in the novel also seems to be disproportionately high ... the Mulder family is dysfunctional even before its disruption by grief and then bovine epidemic. This makes it hard to care about, or even be shocked by, the events of the plot after a while ... It is when Rijneveld strays into fantasy and tries to pack in one too many ideas—a common pitfall with a debutant novel—that the reader is left with a sense of discomfort.
A first novel that stakes everything on shock value is something of a tradition ... It’s clear that much of the story is intended or imagined to be shocking, but literary shock is a distinct phenomenon from shock as experienced in life or mediated in other ways, through gossip or the news. What shocks in art is not what shocks in life. There needs to be an element of internal tension if the reader is to be troubled in anything but a shallow way ... In The Discomfort of Evening there’s no whisper of normality to be heard. The status quo is dysfunctional even before its theoretical disruption by grief and then bovine epidemic, which makes it hard to care. Bereavement and family crisis, explored without psychological plausibility, are pretexts for any amount of inertly lurid invention ... Rijneveld isn’t satisfied with...truthful miseries, and all the attempts to soar into the upper air of pathology, provocation and metaphorical overload leave mere readers behind.
When the climax of a book turns on whether or not a character will take off her coat, you can be sure you’re reading a certain strain of modern European fiction. You might know the sort of thing. Bleak with existential dread, a thread of black humour running throughout, delivered in an affectless style ... The electricity in this book comes from the use of that blank narrative style to deliver a sort of Grand Guignol grotesquerie. Everyone and everything suffers in this book, usually in a vicious way ... All this could read like a satire on the religious notion that suffering ennobles us, which inspires the novel’s title ...if it wasn’t done with such relish. In the end it reads more like a young writer’s weakness for the ersatz glamour of the deeply bleak and is heavy on the similes ... In the end this is an effective, albeit often sickening novel that shows a physical rendering of grief and the compound effects of trauma.
...while the novel succeeds as an unsettling exploration of a family dealing with a sudden death, as the novel progresses it tends to lose its narrative thread and becomes unintentionally episodic. Some could argue that Rijneveld’s decision to tell the story as if we are in the mind of a disturbed young girl pardons this lack of cohesiveness, but often the novel reads like Rijneveld is more interested in creating more and more disturbing fantasies instead of actually focusing on what makes this novel interesting. But overall, this isn’t enough of a complaint to deem the novel unsuccessful ... Recently there has been a trend for novels and stories that focus on, to put it plainly, grotesque characters written about grotesquely ... Despite some issues, The Discomfort of Evening is a strong debut. Rijneveld’s poetic prose, eloquently translated by Michele Hutchison, clashes and rattles against the horrors it describes, a constant fight between terror and beauty. It is a novel that does its best to make sure you won’t forget it anytime soon. Something I know my mother will absolutely never read.
The nebulous nature of trauma is...the trouble with The Discomfort of Evening, an astonishing chronicle of grief that occasionally seems lost in the myopia of its own misery. The book is harsh, joyless; every scene of Jas’s life dimmed by a steady drum of suffering ... the novel is frank about its obsessions, evincing a craftedness so fragile and deliberate one wonders how anything in this novel might be accidental. Images resurface so compulsively that I had the occasional sense I was reading a distended poem. I do not mean formally; the writing is clearly prose ... If the action of the novel can feel aimless, its language is studied, latent with meaning. In its finest moments, these motifs combine for an effect both gutting and sublime ... Most of the novel’s fever pitch derives from its balance between forces: Jas’s emotions combine with the assiduousness of the book’s construction to drive the novel, even as the sense of meaninglessness, of entrapment in an aloof world, grounds the narrative. Occasionally, though, this unrelenting grimness can seem to outweigh the elements that push the book forward, can feel so vast and undirected as to sap the book of momentum ... What to make of this novel which seems to insist that nothing derives from anything, causality is fake, and nothing matters; that everything is bleak, was bleak, will remain inescapably bleak, while also infusing a divine sense of craftedness into every line? Perhaps this is the point. A refutation of the idea that Jas’s character can be interpreted, that there is meaning or explanation in tragedy. But an acknowledgment that meaning comes anyhow, somehow; that meaning comes a with terrifying, ugly, word-perfect force.
Rijneveld’s International Booker Prize–shortlisted debut is not a novel for those expecting triumphal outcomes. Readers who can persist through the agonies of a family falling apart, however, will find their breath taken away by Rijneveld’s prose as filtered through Hutchison’s deft translation.
The effects of the unspeakable grief felt by 10-year-old Jas’ family after the death of her beloved older brother are explored in painful and painstaking detail in this startling debut novel by a Dutch poet ...
Jas’ narration of her family’s journey into solitary madnesses alternates between poetic simplicity and childish fantasy about adult life and the world beyond farm and village. Connections between the causes and effects of life events waver between the grotesque and the mundane while Jas’ ability to comprehend the world around her wavers as well. Trigger warnings may not suffice to warn unwary readers of the scatology, violence, and misogyny Jas recounts, but the larger warning should attach to the world she describes, not to her story ... Rijneveld’s extraordinary narrator describes a small world of pain which is hard to look at and harder to ignore
Like a scene in a Bosch painting, the macabre material is loaded with sexual transgressions, pedophilia, animal torture, and abuse. The onslaught can be numbing, but the translation’s soaring lyricism offers mercy for the reader. In another biblical plague, absolute darkness descended upon the land for three days. Here it lasts for almost 300 pages, not lifting until the final line.