Booker International prize-winner The Discomfort Of Evening is a disturbing portrait of a child's grief

FICTION

THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING

By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison

Faber & Faber/ Paperback/ 282 pages/ $27.82/ Available at bit.ly/DoEvening_MLR

4 stars

Jas is 10 years old and she has decided to stop taking off her coat. It is one of those strange ritualistic convictions particular to a child, as is her growing concern that her parents mean to kill her pet rabbit.

Jealous that her brother Matthies gets to go ice skating when she does not, she prays to God to take him instead of her rabbit. Matthies dies.

The Discomfort Of Evening, a Dutch bestseller which won this year’s Booker International Prize for fiction translated into English, is an incredibly disturbing book.

“Discomfort is good,” reflects Jas. “In discomfort we are real.”

But “discomfort” does not begin to cover what happens to this farming family as they unspool from grief.

Rijneveld, a non-binary author who at 29 is the prize’s youngest winner, works on a Dutch dairy farm in real life and also lost a brother at a young age.

In this novel, the dairy farm and the rural, devoutly Christian community that Jas grows up in are depicted in unsparing, squalid detail. Jas’s mother doses the children with worm medicine and rubs reeking udder ointment into their skin to protect them from the cold. The family eat mouldy bread to save money.

“I still get worried sometimes that mould will grow inside me,” says Jas, “that one day my skin will turn blue and white, like the spiced buns Dad slices the mould off with a big knife before serving to us, and that in due course, I’ll only be good as chicken feed.”

Decay permeates the book, as the family falls apart in the wake of Matthies’ death and things they do not understand grow inside them.

Jas continues to keep her coat on, smothering puberty’s changes to her body with an increasingly repulsive outer layer. She develops intense constipation, bloating like a plugged corpse.

She is fixated on the scatological – the narrative seems perpetually encrusted in excrement in some form or another – even as she strains in vain for release.

Her father has bouts of rage and threatens to leave for good. Her mother enters a deep depression and stops eating. Her brother Obbe begins to hurt, then kill, small animals. Her younger sister Hanna begins exploring sexual acts with little awareness of what they mean.

These are compulsive, visceral acts that Jas and her siblings feel they “have to repeat until we understand Matthies’ death, even though we don’t know how”.

It is hard, in all honesty, to recommend that people read this book. There are stomach-churning moments, one involving a cheese scoop, another an artificial insemination gun, that one would not want to inflict on other readers. Rijneveld is obsessed with putting things where they just should not go.

Yet in the midst of so much filth and cruelty is Jas, with her bewildered, poetic thoughts about God, about love, about what to do with a grief so incomprehensible and unspeakable that it transcends the limits of the body. Hutchison does deft work translating this darkly unique child’s voice.

The Discomfort Of Evening is not for everyone. But those who brave it will discover something unusually, painfully real.

If you like this, read: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (Bloomsbury, 2018, $18.95, available for order at bit.ly/SourHrt_Zhang), a short-story collection of moving, at times grotesque tales narrated by the young daughters of Chinese immigrants to America.

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