‘The Discomfort of Evening’
The Discomfort of Evening is the debut novel by Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld published originally in 2018 and now shortlisted for an International Booker Price. The book is quickly gaining recognition and is been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and Korean but that doesn’t make it an easy book to digest.
The Discomfort of Evening follows Jas, a 10-year-old girl struggling to keep her faith as she watches her family collapse into grief and loss. The family’s struggles begin after Matthies, Jas’s older brother dies in an ice-skating accident: The father grows distant; the mother goes through episodes of depression and psychosis; while the children, Jas, Hanna, and Obbe start exploring each other’s bodies, self-harm, and abusing the animals on the dairy farm they live in.
Jas’s parents are punitive strict Christians. Suffering in silence is the way the parents handle their son’s death or yelling passages at their children who are desperate to find a way to control their loss. There’s a part in the book where Jas says she once asked about her brother to her father, to what he responded by hanging her in the coat rack making it difficult for her to breathe.
The Discomfort of Evening reminds me a little of Tideland, the 2005 Canadian neo-noir fantasy horror film co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam, where time feels as if it’s stuck in a place modernity cannot reach. With nobody to care or intervene, the children are left to their own devices, able to do as they wish with and to each other. Cows, hamsters, toads, and bunnies are the victims of the children’s attempt to make sense of the world they live in and more importantly, death.
The grotesque descriptions are not for the delicate as Rijneveld never holds back: Jas’s father sticks pieces of soap in her bum to make her poo; Obbe sticks soda rings into his sister Hanna, and they even use Jas’s friend as an experiment using a metal artificial insemination gun.
The book is not a comfortable read, which has been an increasing trend in these past few years; this new raw and grotesque genre of describing the dark and twisted (think of Ottessa Moshfegh), and this grim story will surely divide the readers into either hating it or loving it.
The brutality of the story made me wonder if some of it was real, and indeed, there are some parallels to the writer’s own life. Rijneveld also grew up in a strict Protestant household and their parents were dairy farmers and they were three when their brother died in a car accident. In an interview for the NYTimes, Rijneveld talks more about the similitudes between their childhood and the book and how it’s affected their relationship with their parents.