Winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize, The Discomfort of Evening takes place in northern Holland, when beloved eldest son Matthies sets off ice skating and falls through the ice and drowns. His parents are shattered and bitter, convinced it is God’s judgment for a long-ago abortion. Preteen Jas, her older brother Obbe, and younger sister, Hanna, must deal with Matthies’ death without their parents’ succor; grief envelops their dairy farm and settles in their house.
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.
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.
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.