Published in The Observer March 22, 2020
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.
A bestseller in the 28-year-old’s native Netherlands, the book begins with a 10-year-old girl, Jas, feeling angry at not being allowed to go ice-skating with her brother Matthies and wishing he would die instead of her rabbit (she fears her unsentimental dairy-farming father has his eye on the pet for dinner).
And then her brother does die, falling through the ice.
What follows is 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. They are further tested by the arrival of foot-and-mouth disease on the farm (the book is set around the 2001 outbreak), necessitating the slaughter of their beloved cows.
Jas’s family are strict Christians – a background shared with Rijneveld, who still works on a dairy farm. The non-binary author has talked about growing up with a sense of a “threatening, cruel God” – and also losing a brother at a young age, which the family barely discussed. Suffering in silence is the fictionalised family’s response too. “We only knew about the harvest that came from the land, not about the things that grew inside ourselves,” Jas says.
Even before Matthies’s death, the parents are pious to the point of punitive; bodily functions are a source of shame. Afterwards, it’s as if teachings about sin, penance and the corporeal become painfully snarled up with the family’s loss, and their desperate attempts to control or master it.
Jas refuses to take off her increasingly disgusting red coat, keeps a drawing pin stuck in her belly button and develops chronic constipation (this matter-of-fact scatological novel is not for the squeamish). Her brother, Obbe, obsessively bashes his head on his bedframe and starts killing animals, while her mother refuses to eat an ever-growing list of certain foods.
Throughout The Discomfort of Evening characters test the limits of bodily boundaries – their own, and others. Jas’s father shoves soap up her bum to make her poo; her sister sticks her tongue in Jas’s mouth, like “a leftover steak that Mum’s warmed up in the microwave”. There’s a particularly unpleasant scene featuring a metal artificial insemination gun going into a hole it was never intended for.
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.
Translated by Michele Hutchison, Rijneveld’s writing is raw and impassive, though often grotesquely vivid in its descriptions. Skinned knuckles look like “ruptured prawns’ heads”; bits of wet crisp at the swimming pool “stick to your feet like blisters”. Jas has a singular imagination, too: she pictures her dead granny’s face “beginning to ooze eggnog as thin as yolk” out of eye sockets and pores.
Not everything works: Rijneveld seems to strain in search of an ending. Jas’s conviction that her mum is hiding Jews in the basement seems less plausible than most of her delusions and rather underdeveloped. (Apparently, the Dutch version also contained a joke deemed too offensive for British publication – removing it seems a strange choice, serving only to inflame an imagination already given a good stoking by Rijneveld.)
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.