Translated by Michele Hutchison
This debut novel, first published in Dutch in 2018, has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, and it wholly deserves the nomination. Rijneveld is also a prize-winning poet, and the writing here is phenomenal. The subject matter is more of a struggle, although the book is never boring or a chore to engage with. The novel is an exploration of the impact of loss, and a dissection of a family dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the grief that follows the accidental death, just before Christmas, of the eldest child, Matthies.
This is no ordinary family, even in happier times. The book is narrated by eldest daughter Jas, aged 10, who lives with her devoutly Christian parents and two surviving siblings, Hanna and Obbe, on a dairy farm. (Rijneveld, too, grew up on a dairy farm, raised by deeply religious parents, and lost an elder brother in an accident.) In its account of parental religious fervour it reminded me a bit of the (excellent) US memoir Educated by Tara Westover. The children in The Discomfort of the Evening do attend school, but they also work on the farm, where the labour sounds gritty and dirty, but also sometimes comforting, and life is hard to start with, and then hard and grim and devastating. The children are forbidden from talking about Matthies.
“A rope with a noose in it had recently appeared in the attic, hanging from the rafters. “It’s for a swing,” Dad said, but there was still no swing.”
While Jas’s mother, broken by grief, stops eating, Jas stops excreting. It is a sort of scatological coming of age story, with some deeply disturbing descriptions of early adolescent explorations of sexuality, violence and death, coupled with dubious child-rearing methods. Some of the less (yes, I meant to write less) unpalatable of all these include the deliberate drowning of a hamster, and the manual insertion into Jas’s anus of broken-off pieces of soap, in a bid by her father to make her finally open her chronically constipated bowels.
“Mum … hurries out of the living room, pulling the vacuum cleaner along with her by its hose … she seems to have more of a relationship with it than with her own children. At the end of every week I see her cleaning its tummy with great love and putting a new hoover bag in it, while mine is about to burst.”
The book is undeniably brilliant, and the sensuous prose is often beautiful, and littered with evocative and imaginative metaphors. The tale is also horrific, though, in its unveering, microscopic examination of the unrepentant brutality of life, although it always manages to steer clear of gratuitousness. I feel Rijneveld would make a worthy winner of the International Man Booker prize, but this is not a book I would go back to – and I definitely wouldn’t buy it for a present!