After a fun trek across the Argentinean pampas (with a cute puppy in tow), I’m afraid today’s International Booker Prize longlist journey is about to take us into much darker territory. We’ve signed up for another farm stay, but (as always) our timing has proven to be somewhat less than impeccable. Our hosts are a family who have just been struck by tragedy, and we’ll be hanging around just long enough to see what happens to those left behind, with our attention caught by one of the daughters – whose ways of coping with her loss turn out to be rather extreme…
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
– Faber & Faber, translated by Michele Hutchison
(electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
It’s December 2000, and the Mulder family, on their dairy farm in the Dutch countryside, are in the swing of Christmas preparations. The tree is going up, and food is being prepared, with decorations and special crockery emerging for the first time that year. Meanwhile, Matthies, the eldest of the four children, goes off skating on the frozen lake, leaving behind his younger sister, Jas, to fret about the fate of her pet rabbit and wish she were old enough to go off by herself, too.
However, the idyllic festive scene is shattered when news of a disaster arrives from the village. Matthies was skating on thin ice, literally, and by the time his body was pulled from the water, life had long departed. Christmas is cancelled, the tree is thrown out onto the roadside, and the family prepare to deal with their grief as best they can – which proves to be in very different ways. You see, rather than coming together to deal with their loss, the family is torn apart by Matthies’s death, and the grieving parents have no idea how it’s affecting their three remaining children – particularly Jas.
Let’s make this clear right now – The Discomfort of Evening does not make for comfortable reading. It’s a detailed description of what comes after the unimaginable, the death of a child, the heir to the family business, and details the changes that sweep in overnight in all facets of family life:
I heard her in the hall wiping her feet for longer than normal. From now on, every visitor to the house would wipe their feet for longer than necessary. I learned that at first, death requires people to pay attention to small details – the way Mum checks her nails for dried-up bits of rennet from making cheese – to delay the pain.
p.23 (Faber & Faber, 2020)
One of the more damaging effects is the manner in which the parents grow apart, with the mother struggling to dress, or even eat, and the father seeking an outlet for his anger, starting to develop doubts about his previously strong faith. These emotions are only exacerbated when more misfortune, in the form of disease, strikes the farm.
The result is that the remaining children are left to their own devices. Obbe, a teen with serious issues, begins to rebel against the family’s strict religious upbringing. Hanna, the youngest of the children, chooses to retreat into a focus on her own body, enjoying an emerging awareness of her sexuality. Yet it’s Jas we’re focused on, caught in the middle between her brother’s move into adulthood and her sister’s innocence. She’s plagued by guilt as a result of a childish deal pitting her rabbit’s life against that of her brother, and The Discomfort of Evening can be seen as one long depiction of her spiral into depression. This manifests itself in her hiding away inside a coat, undertaking unnatural acts with a teddy bear and, eventually, in secret, subtle acts of self-mutilation.
Despite the presence of the parents, the novel is marked at times by a Lord of the Flies-style atmosphere, and for a book set at the start of this century, it all feels as if it’s happening decades earlier (in places it felt as if my own childhood was being described). With nobody to intervene, or caring that much, the children are left to their own devices in a sort of free-range existence, able to do as they wish provided they keep one eye open for passing adults.
One consequence of this, and a rather disturbing one at that, can be seen in casual acts of cruelty towards animals. Hamsters, toads and bunnies are the unwitting victims of the children’s ‘curiosity’, and there’s also a graphic scene when Jas decides to mess around with a cow (kids are obviously made a little different out in the country…). While much of this is deliberate cruelty, some of these incidents show the children trying to make sense of the world, attempting to understand this mystery called ‘death’ through practical experiments.
An even more upsetting turn of events, for many readers, at least, will be the passages showing sexual experimentation between the siblings. The two girls are quite casual in touching themselves, and each other, and later Obbe joins in with ‘games’ with his younger sisters, swearing them to secrecy:
“I know something fun,” he says. (p.238)
And by fun, he means something that most readers will certainly not approve of… Yet what is even more disturbing is when there are hints of the same sort of behaviour from adults. Jas’s father’s hands-on approach to her chronic constipation is bad enough, but it’s the lecherous comments from the local vet to the twelve-year-old that may really appal the reader.
One of the strongest features of The Discomfort of Evening is the narrator’s voice. Rijneveld and Hutchison do a wonderful job of catching the matter-of-fact way Jas approaches her life, dealing with the new realities of the world with sharp, wry humour:
I put down the lantern they gave us at the Reformed church next to me on the road. It is white with sticking out folds in the middle. “God’s word is a lamp to your feet and a light to your path,” Reverend Renkema had said as he handed them out to the children. It’s not yet eight o’clock and my candle has already shrunk to half its size. I hope God’s word isn’t going to start fading too. (p.37)
Yet there are also passages where she’s more naïve, even childish at times. These work as occasional reminders that she’s just a kid,and shouldn’t be carrying this dark, crushingly heavy burden around with her. Sadly, with her parents sleepwalking through their days, there’s nobody around to tell her this.
In the end, The Discomfort of Evening is a book where the reader slowly moves towards an inevitable tragedy. In a house where death has taken over, there are clues as to how things will play out in the fixation with animals, the food taken down to the cellar and the coat Jas never removes. Rijneveld’s novel is a heart-breaking tale of what happens when a loved one is taken away, and when those left behind are ignored and neglected…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Here’s the thing. The Discomfort of Evening is well-written, intriguing and disturbing, and yet somehow it never really grabbed me the way several of the other longlisted titles have. Many readers have disliked it for its dark nature, but while there’s certainly many a disturbing moment, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been written/read before (even in this year’s longlist). The truth is that this is a good book that deserves recognition – it simply never clicked with me.
It happens 😉
Why did it make the shortlist?
As I’ve said before, this was one of my dark horses for the prize from the moment of the longlist announcement, and even if it’s not one of my favourites, I can still see why it’s done so well. It can be unrelentingly grim, but that’s the point, and the key to it all is Jas’s voice, that mixture of dark humour, inisght and childish naïvety. The whole book is a tragedy waiting to happen, with the family’s parents oblivious to it all because of their grief. No, it’s not nice, but it’s good writing, and that’s why the judges picked it.
In these times, though, I’d be *very* surprised if this is what they decided on as the pick of the year’s fiction in translation…
Let’s leave the farmyard behind, carefully cleaning our shoes as we do so, and set off on the final leg of this year’s epic journey. Luckily, given all of our travelling this year, this one’s a relatively brief trip, taking us to the French countryside, where we’ll be treated to a few slices of rural life. However, even here there’s something a little off. Figures keep reappearing, and even if names are light on the ground, the faces are often familiar – and yet, there’s also a nagging feeling that something’s missing…
…we’ll find out what next time 😉