mon 24/06/2024

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: The Discomfort of Evening review - lovelessness, loneliness, bodies and their limits | reviews, news & interviews

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: The Discomfort of Evening review - lovelessness, loneliness, bodies and their limits

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: The Discomfort of Evening review - lovelessness, loneliness, bodies and their limits

Dark and highly original debut novel grapples with grief and growing up on a Dutch farm

Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, whose discomfiting debut has been shortlisted for the International BookerFaber & Faber

“I was ten and stopped taking off my coat.” This bare beginning marks the opening of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s startling and lyrical novel, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison: an introduction to ten-year-old Jas and the dislocated world of metaphor she inhabits. Later, she kidnaps two toads and hides them in a bucket in her bedroom, deeming them talismanic substitutes for her parents: if the toads mate, so will they, and everything will be alright.

She picks her nose because it helps her to think, “as though looking for ways out in my thoughts has to be expressed physically.” More alarmingly, she remembers the teacher’s suggestion to dream of the places you’d like to visit one day, and mark them on a map with a pin. She pushes a drawing pin into the flesh of her stomach: “‘One day I’d like to go to myself,’ I say quietly.”

It’s on the day of her oldest brother’s death, two days before Christmas in an ice-skating accident, that she stops removing her coat. She’ll become dangerously ill without it, she believes, and applies the teachings of a strict Reformist upbringing to explain the form her suppressed feelings have taken: “I think I’m just like Samson, though my strength isn’t in my hair but in my coat. Without my coat I’ll be Death’s slave, do you get that?”

The Discomfort of Evening

She and her siblings have been trying to “meet death” in their different ways – Obbe, her older brother, by ceremoniously drowning his hamster. Jas, by withdrawing into herself, becoming severely constipated and experimenting with suffocation, hoping “to fish Matthies out of his sleep”. Together with Hanna, the youngest, she plays a morbid question game. How are their parents more likely to die: “Car accident or burning?" “Murdered or cancer?”

Answers are few on the family’s dairy farm, and the imposing silence intensifies when the cows fall victim to foot-and-mouth disease. Increasingly the violence inside them all "makes noise". The children are not alone in this. Jas’s mother throws herself off a stepladder in the kitchen in protest at Jas’ refusal to take off her coat. Her father, treating his daughter as he would a calf, shoves chunks of green soap deep into her rectum, a supposed cure for constipation.

Jas contemplates escape: leaving home and daring to remove her protective red layer: “Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while, but according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.” It’s the only time the book references the title directly, but Rijneveld’s portrait of Jas and her grief-stricken family continuously tests those boundaries of distress. A confrontation with lovelessness, loneliness, bodies and their limits, it’s a devastatingly vivid, minutely observed exploration of growing up in the aftermath of loss and under the pressure of increasing emotional neglect.

In the midst of this unremitting bleakness, Jas’s naivety filters the growing suffering. Her imagination probes at the reasons why things are the way they are: “Mum and Dad never cuddle; that must be because some of your secrets end up sticking to the other person, like Vaseline. That’s why I spontaneously never give hugs myself – I’m not sure which secrets I want to give away.” Nimble in her noticings, she makes neat jumps between contexts, as Rijneveld creates an idiom that’s childishly wise. The game of eye contact: “other people’s eyeballs are two lovely marbles you can continuously win or lose". Her parents’ searching hands: “if you were no longer able to hold an animal or a person tenderly, it was better to let go and turn your attention to other useful things instead.” Sometimes she seems almost too knowing for her age, her observations steady with aphoristic confidence: “some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves.” But she doesn’t always draw the right conclusions.

“‘Death is a process that disintegrates into actions and actions into phases. Death never just happens to you, there is always something that causes it.”’ The warped chronology of that assertion, its deceptively simple non-sequiturs and hunt for a root, get at the experience of the book’s weird, haunting vertigo. Something end-stopped becomes ongoing, then flakes apart and finds itself itemised.

As an urgent portrayal of what it means to feel undone and shut in by grief, The Discomfort of Evening is an intoxicating, dark and highly original debut. It was a bestseller in Rijneveld's native Netherlands, and the English translation has recently been shortlisted for the International Booker prize. It's easy to see why.

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