Sunday 28 November 2021

The Discomfort of Evening: a moving, but difficult read

Unflinching, sometimes grotesque, this prize-winning novel follows Jas, a 10-year-old growing up on a dairy farm in a strict Protestant household. When tragedy strikes, the family unravels and Jas blames herself, leading to increasingly harmful behavior. 

Published in Dutch 2018 and English in 2020, The Discomfort of Evening became the first Dutch novel to win the International Booker Prize, (and only the third Dutch nomination. Dutch literature stalwarts Tommy Wieringa and Harry Mulisch have previously been nominated.)

The author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, was, at the age of 29, the youngest person of any nationality to earn the prize. Like the narrator, they grew up on a dairy farm, in a deeply religious household. ‘I am proud as a cow with seven udders,’ Rijneveld wrote in a statement about winning the most prestigious award in English literature.

For better or worse, Rijneveld does an incredible job with the most minute descriptions. In the bumps of toads as compared to capers, the feeling of udder ointment, the emotional connection to the red coat that the narrator refuses to remove, the world comes alive.

Faint of heart

Some have criticised the work for being too gratuitous with its depictions of everything from animal slaughter to parenting practices that amount to sexual abuse. The book is, certainly, not for the faint of heart. But the difficult parts don’t come across as manufactured to create a response. Worse, you wonder how much is autobiographical.

The world Rijneveld creates is disorientating. Any reader who lives in the Netherlands will recognize the Dutch cultural touchstones. Visiting Hema, watching NPO television channels, eating komijnekaas are some of the things that the narrator does.

The rest of the book feels as though it could be set on another planet, or perhaps a 1950s version of the Netherlands. The oppressiveness of religion, the strictness of parents and the antiquated views on sex are in sharp contrast with the stereotype of the country as a bastion of tolerance and progressive views.

The International Booker Prize comes with a £50,000 award, with Rijneveld split with the book’s translator, Michele Hutchison. In an interview with Het Parool, Hutchison describes the difficulty of dealing with Rijneveld’s use of language and how she came up with ‘bum hole’ as the terminology of choice, as a translation of poepgat.

Despite its horrors, The Discomfort of Evening is a beautiful book and poignantly describes a part of the Netherlands that is often hidden, both from outsiders and the Dutch alike.

Buy The Discomfort of Evening from the American Book Center.

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