THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING By Marieke Lucas Rijeneveld. Book Review by John Klassen
Marieke Lucas Rijeneveld
The author is 29. (Rijeneveld is non-binary and uses they/their as personal pronouns). This is their first novel and they are the youngest recipient of the International Booker Prize. Other winners since 2015 have been Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Han Kung, David Grossman, Olga Tokarczuk, and Jokha al-Harthi. The Prize is awarded annually for a single book translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland
The Discomfort of Evening
This is a disturbing, even very disturbing, novel on a number of fronts.
But it is an impressive book. The writing is clear, insightful, descriptive, direct; strong use of metaphors and similes. The themes are universal despite the darkness that is explored.
The first person narrator throughout is Jas, a girl of 10 becoming 12 by the end of the book. I can see some quibbling about the likelihood of a child that age being so articulate, but I was ready to give the author some licence. Jas is insightful on the evolving neuroses of her siblings and parents, but she sees it through the lens of a child not understanding her own fears and hopes, fantasies and the unravelling of her own personality. Jas has three siblings, two brothers (both older, including Matthies) and a younger sister; the parents are hard-working, in what seems to be a good marriage, and fairly successful as dairy farmers in a small, strict, religious community of Protestant Dutch. The children lead lives regimented by unquestioning adherence to religious precepts, but on the whole the picture is that of a well-adjusted family with the usual chafes for children growing and beginning to develop their own independence and personalities.
Everything changes, in a heartbeat. The narrative arc of the novel is set in the first pages when the eldest son, Matthies drowns while skating on a lake. The grief is overwhelming and what follows are visceral descriptions of emotional, psychological, and physical separation and disintegration, and the destruction of innocence, acted out through self-harm, physical and sexual abuse. Summarizing it like this might not act as an inducement to read the novel. But Rijeneveld grips the reader by the throat and does not let go. She is acute in her parsing of the psychology of extreme grief acted out in a maelstrom of collapsed parental support and structure, and the urges of young, untutored, unstructured, misunderstood hormones.
A number of themes present themselves. Foremost is the fraying of identity, personality, and relationships that can be triggered by trauma. This can be especially destructive with children naturally trying to define themselves, but finding their worlds darkened and completely overturned with no markers, no signposts, no bases of stability for guidance—no structures or outlets to deal with sorrow, loss, and delusions of guilt. All of which emphasizes the critical importance of parental stability and strength to provide a comforting and supportive structure, but Jas’s parents themselves are lost as individuals and as a couple. An underlying theme that I think Rijeneveld weaves throughout is the failure of religion to provide anything like much needed compassion, understanding, and support...instead it stands outside the consequences of grief with its rigid adherence to obedience and mindless strictures.
In his inexpressible grief within the family collapse, the surviving brother, Obbe, takes a dark path into physical, emotional, sexual cruelty that will clearly mark him long into whatever life he might have. He is so damaged that one despairs to think what sort of relationships he might have in the future, what sort of parent he might be. Which reminded me of curses in Greek mythology that extend down through generations and ruin lives that had noting to do with the original sin. These curses still exist even if they are not uttered: Obbe, and whatever lives he will touch, will suffer from the unseen generational ripples of despair, at best, and possible destruction, at worst.
So, why read such a dark book? Because the darkness is part of the human condition and Rijeneveld does a masterful job of exploring it and, while certainly not forgiving the darkness, maybe at least understanding it. And maybe because there is an unstated theme of the critical importance of love, especially within a family, to deal with, and surmount, deep grief and loss so that survivors can continue to live, and to love.
Tags: John Klassen