The international prize winner paints a dark, violent and uncomfortable picture of life in the rural Netherlands.
The Discomfort of Evening is a novel like no other. In many ways, it is evocative of the traditional literary fiction genre. Told through the perspective of Jas, a 10-year-old girl — it is highly character-driven.
My qualms with the novel lay in how it portrays discomfort — as it goes beyond certain (usually) respected boundaries. As a result, it may make many readers uncomfortable, with often, little warning. However, it makes for a truly compelling and addictive read. But maybe that’s precisely because it is so uncomfortable and strange? In the same way that many people are compelled to read and watch true crime stories — as readers, we can’t help but read on further despite our raging sense of discomfort.
All in all — the clue is in the title for this one. In a nutshell, The Discomfort of Evening is a strange novel with a very strange feeling.
About the Book
A Discomfort of Evening paints a picture of rural life in the Netherlands, told through the perspective of a 10-year-old girl, Jas. She lives on her family’s farm with her two siblings and parents. One day — pretty early on in the novel — her brother tragically dies, after that, the family dynamic suddenly changes.
As the whole family struggles to come to terms with death, havoc and strangeness are let loose. The parents start arguing and Jas, as the narrator, lets us know how concerned she is about their lack of love between each other — she picks up on every change. The family as a whole goes down a dark path.
This culminates in a case of foot and mouth which is discovered on the farm, resulting in the culling of all livestock which not only damages the family business and their livelihood — but is another reminder of the persistence of death. In between this, Jas and her siblings have to face the changing pace of her father’s religious belief. Even though she was used to growing up in a religious household, as these events unfold, her father becomes increasingly driven by religion at all costs.
And of course, the children rebel in their own ways. And this rebellion is completely disturbing, at times unnecessary, but all the same — completely addictive to read.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is a prize-winning young poet in the Netherlands, add this is their first novel. It won the international booker prize in 2020, and has since, sold many copies worldwide, after being translated from the original Dutch.
What Makes the novel Disturbing and Discomforting?
“Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while, but according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.”
Just from reading the title, we know it’s going to be a strange and uncomfortable read. But I never thought it would be this weird.
Jas, inevitably, is growing up and exploring her own sexuality — which in itself — is not strange. She documents this with a matter of fact style, evocative of a young child. However, this exploration of herself, and her own sexuality, get incredibly uncomfortable when it involves her brother (who was several years older) and her sister.
The casualness to which incest is witnessed between two siblings, one 10, and the other in their early teens, is incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing. But, this is not where it stops. When the foot and mouth outbreak happens, a vet comes to the farm to try and help Jas’ father. As a grown man, he tries to groom Jas, a 10-year-old girl, right in front of her parents’ eyes.
But this sexual discomfort and exploration don’t stop within the family. Jas invites her friend Beth over and her brother assaults her in the cowshed. Evidently, this novel aims to incite discomfort to demonstrate one family’s decay and how disorder can reign. I appreciate the intention — but the delivery using these examples — is unnecessary.
But there are other disturbing elements — such as animal abuse. Jas shoves an ice cream scoop into the bottom of a cow, which is described viscerally and physically. She treats them with no respect for somebody who has grown up on a farm and developed a love of animals. But perhaps, this is the result of the prevailing family dynamic infiltrating all of her actions.
Lastly, — Jas’ mother is evidently suffering from depression. She makes it clear to Jas, at one point, that she wants to die. The whole family walk on tiptoes around her but don’t attempt to comfort her, or help her in any way. I found this one of the most disturbing elements — it wasn’t one told with graphic imagery — but simmering beneath the surface. The casual dismissal of a mother in complete suffering was far more disturbing and uncomfortable than anything else.
How the Style of the Book Feeds into this Discomfort
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld writes vividly, and without limits. They do not shy away from patining a visceral and uncomfortable picture of death, incest or animal abuse. It’s plain and simple for the readers to witness and feel.
The delivery and imagery created tunes automatically into this sense of discomfort, which could be executed with greater poignancy — if you removed the incest and animal abuse.
The author draws upon what is obviously disturbing and uncomfortable, I found myself at times, finding it clunky, gimmicky and crying out for attention.
Through the language, style and narration of certain disturbing events, Rijneveld paints a picture of one family who is on the verge of decay — just as their farm is crumbling around them. It portrays a disturbing account of youth, grief, suffering and everyday life but propels this to new — and often — unworthy heights.
Fo me, the parts I found most disturbing were less obvious — such as Jas’ mother’s mental decline. More examples of this slow, subtle and simmering discomfort, for me, would have been more effective in displaying the novel’s message. Although certainly unique, I feel as if this novel falls short of what it aims to achieve, and potentially, eliminates a whole bunch of readers.
Did it Deserve the Booker Prize?
This novel was a bestseller in the Netherlands before it was translated into English and won the international booker prize in 2020. The author grew up in a strict, religious, Protestant household — which bears a significant resemblance to the one depicted in this novel.
Rijneveld also experienced the loss of her own brother when she was 3 and this novel, in many ways, is an attempt to document how that impacts a family.
“Either the family grows closer or it falls apart. As a child, I could see that ours was starting to fall apart.” — Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
In this respect — it’s aims and intentions are noteworthy, making it worth a read. It is a unique way of exploring grief, trauma and growing up within a troublesome family. Rijneveld style of writing makes the novel compelling and addictive. It will also alienate many readers who don’t want to subject themselves to reading about incest and animal abuse in their spare time.
I can see why it got the Booker prize, but I wouldn’t say it necessarily deserved it — when considering what it was up against. However, as readers, we should remember that just because a novel wins the Booker prize or has critical acclaim, it doesn’t always mean it’s good or better than anything else.
All in all — this gets a 3/5 for me, as it was a compelling read, which explored many difficult themes. I liked the writing style and can appreciate its execution and what it aimed to do — but I have problems with the disturbance levels portrayed in the novel. And I’m not sure that a mass market of readers would enjoy reading it. But perhaps, that was the point.
This was originally posted on January 15, 2021 at Medium.com