A review of The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison
A little piece of my heart broke when I finished reading this book. If I’m honest, I hadn’t expected to become so invested. I’d heard a lot about it, of course, and knew I was interested to read it, but for some strange reason I wasn’t convinced it would really be one for me. How wrong I was, and how pleased to be put right. For The Discomfort of Evening is a masterful work of fiction, a complex blend of comedy and trauma that effects an experience of heartbreak and delight.
‘Sadness ends up in your spine,’ notes Jas, the twelve-year-old first-person narrator of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s International Booker-winning novel, as she observes the hunched back of her mother a year and a half after her brother Matthies’s death. Matthies, Jas’s eldest sibling, falls through thin ice while skating in the opening chapters of the book; what follows is a reckoning with grief as the family – Jas, her remaining two siblings and their parents – begins to disintegrate under the weight of their loss. Observant members of the Reformed Church who run a dairy farm in a rural Dutch community, their daily lives are ruled by cows and domesticity, their weeks a repeating cycle of work leading up to the day of rest on Sunday. The novel is peppered with quotes from the Bible – the author themself grew up in a Reformed farming community – which Jas sometimes uses to make sense of what she is experiencing, but which most often are spouted by her father and only cast an even greater shadow over proceedings. Unable to forget Matthies but forbidden to speak of him by their father, Jas and her younger sister, Hanna, begin to concoct ‘The Plan’, a daring act of escape that will see them cross the bridge near the village and be delivered to ‘the other side’.
The relationship between Hanna and Jas was, for me, one of the most moving and appealing parts of the book. United in a grief they are unable to express, the sisters are resolutely there for one another, even though they never say this – and, indeed, hurt one another. We are aware that Jas loves her sister (she tells it to us straight), but it was Hanna, with her simple but sure responses to Jas’s fretting, who often took my breath away. Bonds between siblings are hard to recreate in fiction, but Rijneveld has got it almost uncomfortably spot on here.
Uncomfortable is the key word when it comes to this novel – the title may suggest it, but it really does need emphasising. I physically squirmed on several occasions while reading; Jas and her siblings’ increasingly brutal exploration of their bodies and sexuality leads to some intensely painful or discomfiting moments, the description of which Rijneveld is unflinching about. When Jas sticks a drawing pin into her navel – she recalls the game of sticking a pin into a map blindfold to find a country to travel to, but thinks she’d really rather locate herself – I flinched, and the regular references to it from then on only heightened my levels of unease. This, of course, is entirely the point: as Jas so wisely observes, ‘in discomfort we are real’. This novel is a very real book, and it deals with things we’d rather look away from. But, like the pin in her flesh or the constipation pains in her stomach, Jas herself is a continual, nagging reminder that the world, even a safe-looking one, is full of grief and trauma and, much as we might wish to, we cannot simply ignore it.
Just as sibling relationships are a challenge, so is it hard to create a believable child’s voice, but again Rijneveld has surpassed themself with a narrator who is authentic, fragile and utterly charming. Damaged as she is, Jas is erudite and witty, and what she doesn’t understand about the world she explains to herself – and by extension, us – in words and imagery of refreshing and often agonising honesty, such as the quotation forming the title of this review, or her conclusion that a Jewish family must be hiding in their basement. Michele Hutchison’s translation has worked wonders in this regard, with language that is consistent and unique; the voice is sharp, recognisable and tends towards images and metaphor that may be surprising to the reader but make perfect sense in context. From setting to language to narrative tone, the novel works as a truly cohesive whole, which is partly what makes it so memorable.
Jas thinks a lot, and she speaks a lot too – the novel, though not particularly lengthy, is a veritable wall of words that are all the more poignant as we realise our chatty narrator has little chance to utter them aloud. Crushed by the loss of their oldest son, her domineering father and reserved mother curl ever further into themselves, largely ignoring their surviving children unless it is to hurt them. Much of the hurt inflicted is emotional, but there are moments of physical violence and, when Jas’s father leers at her growing breasts, overtones of sexual abuse. It is the silence and the distance that are most damaging, however, and which prove heart-wrenching for the reader when thrown into relief against Jas’s constant fears for her parents. Though she knows she and her siblings aren’t treated properly – ‘Apart from food and clothes we also need attention. They seem to keep forgetting that’ – she is terrified of losing more members of her family. This empathy contrasts sharply with her severe loneliness, which causes her to seek attention in all the wrong ways. Closing herself off from the world – Jas never gives hugs, except for occasional embraces with her sister, and refuses to take off the coat that has become a form of armour – is really a cry for assistance, a longing to feel ‘the way the moon must have felt when someone took the trouble to come closer by for the first time in its existence’.
For Jas, tucked in the indentation left by her brother’s body in his bed, it is ‘easier to get into a hollow than to come out of one’. For the novel too, it seems, and, though I hoped for a while for a happy ending, I was somehow glad I wasn’t given one – it left me wrung out emotionally, but the overall impact would have been lessened without it. From first page to last, Rijneveld plays skilfully with our emotions, only occasionally veering into passages that are a little too philosophical, such as when Jas holds forth in a spoken monologue directed at the toads she keeps in a bucket in her bedroom. As a debut effort, The Discomfort of Evening is more than assured, and the continual interplay of the corporeal and the emotional, charm and devastation, is what keeps the story gripping right up to ‘the all-destructive silence of an ending’.
The Discomfort of Evening is an unusual novel, and it certainly won’t be for everyone. The sex, physical hurt and emotional abuse it contains are often deeply upsetting, but it is the slow unravelling of a family, the creeping presence of grief and the catastrophic damage caused by silence that are the real story here, and the reasons the book is so worth reading. Musing on her sister’s childish drawings, Jas finds ‘they’re lopsided and crooked and that’s what gives them their beauty, their naturalness’, but that is a perfect description of Rijneveld’s novel, too. An electrifying voice and an unsettling story, delivered with linguistic creativity and immense compassion, The Discomfort of Evening is a knockout and, I hope, a sign that Rijneveld is only just getting started.