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The Discomfort of Evening

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I thought about being too small for so much, but that no one told you when you were big enough ... and I asked God if he please couldn't take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. 'Amen.'

Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter's day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip; resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.

A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison's striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty. Studded with unforgettable images - visceral, raw, surreal - The Discomfort of the Evening is a radical reading experience that will leave you changed forever.

288 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 31, 2018

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About the author

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

17 books911 followers
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld grew up in a Reformed farming family in North Brabant (NL) before moving to Utrecht. One of the greatest new voices in Dutch literature, his first poetry collection, Calfskin, was awarded the C. Buddingh’ Prize for best poetry debut in 2015, with newspaper de Volkskrant naming him literary talent of the year. In 2018, Atlas Contact published his first novel, The Discomfort of Evening, which won the prestigious ANV Debut Prize and was a national bestseller. Alongside his writing career, Rijneveld works on a dairy farm.

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5 stars
4,949 (17%)
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3 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,390 reviews
Profile Image for Meike.
1,518 reviews2,467 followers
August 27, 2020
Winner of the International Booker Prize 2020
In this grim, claustrophobic novel, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld masterfully evokes an increasing sense of doom - on this Dutch farm, the apocalypse is nearing. Our narrator and main character is 10-year-old Jas who grows up in a strict religious family who owns a dairy farm. When she detects signs that her father might slaughter her favorite rabbit, she begs God to take her older brother instead - the plea of a child momentarily upset by her sibling. But then, the brother really drowns, the parents are paralyzed by grief, their marriage is under duress, the mother gets depressed, the farm is (also due to circumstances beyond their agency) in decline, and Jas and her two remaining siblings are more or less left to their own devices and their inability to deal with the loss of the brother.

The story gradually becomes more and more graphic and frequently rather disgusting (which is of course intentional): From the harsh reality of stock rearing to children torturing and killing animals, children being molested, harming themselves and others and experimenting with their developing sexuality, this novel is not for the faint of heart. The pastor in the novel says: "Discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.", and Rijneveld tests this theory on their readers.

The parents hold on to their religion to explain and make sense of their experiences, to deal with reality, and the children also cling to narrative frameworks when seeking direction: For them, religion is also an important frame of reference, but Jas also invokes Anne Frank, she contemplates what she might have in common with Hitler (Jas, just like the author, has the same date of birth as the dictator), she plays mind games about Jews hiding in their cellar, she obsesses over the fairy tale of Rapunzel, and she relates to TV star Dieuwertje Blok. Again and again, we hear about dangling ropes on the compound, and we get lots and lots of info on Jas' constipation. Lego bricks and The Sims are recurring motifs, games that focus on building new worlds, and Jas dreams of leaving the farm (which, in a way, her brother has done...). Jas' coat (which features prominently on the cover) becomes her armor, and she doesn't take it off anymore.

Rijneveld grew up in a reformed farming family in North Brabant and still does some work on a dairy farm. Their own 12-year-old brother was run over by a bus when they were a young child, so this book can probably be read as a roman à clef about the author, a fictional autobiography. You can learn more about this fascinating, talented Dutch writer here and here.

I can see why this novel is lauded, but I have to admit that for me, reading it turned into a chore after around 15%. The book finds intense, unsettling images to discuss grief, trauma and the dark urges of adolescence, but personally, I didn't find it emotionally immersive, but rather exhausting to read. The vibe of the book and especially the shocking ending reminded me of another debut originally written in Dutch, Lize Spit's bestseller Het smelt - although de facto not excessively long, it felt like a very, very long book that spelt out its descriptions and motifs over and over again.

So all in all, this is a very impressive, effective novel, but it's not the kind of literature I personally enjoy.

(The book is also available in German: Was man sät)
Profile Image for Henk.
851 reviews
September 1, 2020
The struggle (and discomfort) is real with this winner of the Booker International Prize 2020.
Very unsettling, sad and more than a tad nasty.

It might sound crazy, but I miss my parents even though I see them every day. Maybe it’s just like the things we want to learn because we can’t do them yet: we miss everything we don’t have.

...that we can’t swap God - he’s the strongest Pokémon card we have.
Starting of with udders cooking into a stew on the first page, the environment where in Jas Mulder, protagonist of The Discomfort of Evening grows up is rather depressing and in many ways repugnant. The story starts innocent enough with the prayer of an angry girl to save her rabbit from being eaten at Christmas, even if the exchange would be her brother, on who she is cross since he doesn’t want to ice skate with her.
But then it appears sometimes God does seem to hear us and even answers in a way:
Since the day Matthies didn’t come home, I’ve been calling us the three kings because one day we’ll find our brother, even though we’ll have to travel a long way and go bearing gifts.

After these first few pages the narrative shifts to how the strict reformed church family deals with grief. The coping mechanisms of the narrator include a lot of focus on physical excretions, ranging from snot, blood to poop. The body is a refuge, a way to gain control despite the demands from the society of a small village under god, that wants the family to show a stiff upper lip at all times.

In these circumstances cruelty, emotionally to others, to animals, to oneself, seems to become a language to speak of the pain and loss that must not be spoken about.

The (un)happy family
That we get up every day, however slowly, is enough proof for them that we’re doing all right.
Dreary and grim, sparse, all attention focussed on the cow farm and the means of production instead of emotional introspection (We never really live in the seasons as we’re always busy with the next one.). That is family life for Jas.
As said, the dead are not to be spoken about in this environment.

Her mother is distant and retreats in herself, tries to disappear and even shows suicidal tendencies while making every effort not to touch her remaining children. Her father appear predominantly to hand out punishments, from kicks to the backside to sacrificing a piggyback to burning someone's Pokémon cards, but is also buckling under the losses incurred on the family during the book. Her remaining brother Obbe and sister Hanna seem initially to be a kind of support, but especially Obbe's way of dealing with grief is violence and an obsession with death.

Poetic, magical thinking from the young narrator is a sort of counterweight, sentences like:
I’m too old to believe in the tooth fairy but too young not to still long for her. shows she is really young. But Jas (which is not just short for Jasmijn as a name but also the Dutch word for the red coat she doesn't dare to take off after her brother disappears) is also clearly affected by trauma.
From automutilation with a thumbtack in her belly button to problems with pooping, to suggestions of incest and very explicit sexual experimentation between minors, the book is quite shocking and nasty in many ways.

Beautiful sentences despite the deeply saddening story
I think we feel happy for a brief moment then, even if Dad says that’s not for us, that we weren’t made to be happy, just like our pale skins can’t be in the sun for more than ten minutes so we always long for the shade, for darkness.
Hence it is an achievement from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld that I did want to read on, even if halfway through the book I did have the feeling that the continuous level of gloom and nasty events became a bit tiring. The sense of nostalgia and capturing the time period, with drinking yoghurt, pritt sticks, teletext, Nokia’s, The Sims, dial in internet, light up globes as nightstand lights, glow in the dark stars, was something I did enjoy and made the book immersive.

The warped and even sick relations between the siblings in the book reminded me of The Cement Garden of Ian McEwan, while the shock of so many physically repulsive scenes made me think of The Vegetarian from Han Kang.
I think I could handle the level of nastiness better in the English translation than in the Dutch original, a word like manure sounds a bit more distanced and well formulated than the Dutch equivalent of "stront" or "mest".

In the end I found this a compelling, if difficult read. Discomfort is an euphemism. Not just because of the nasty bits, but also due to the heavy theme of (not) coping with loss. Happiness, if not sometimes tenderness, is hard to find in this tale, as the below exchange between Hanna and Jas shows:

She looks worried. Now we have to smile back cheerfully so she doesn’t ask any questions, not to us or our parents.
‘Pretend to be happy,’ I say quietly to Hanna.
‘I’ve forgotten how to.’
‘As though it’s for the school photo.’
‘Oh, right.’
Profile Image for Rebecca.
237 reviews209 followers
November 5, 2022
“Nobody knows my heart. It's hidden deep inside my coat, my skin, my ribs. My heart was important for nine months inside my mother's belly, but once I left the belly, everyone stopped caring whether it beat enough times per hour. No one worries when it stops or begins to beat fast, telling me there must be something wrong.”

Ten year old Jas lives with her strictly religious parents and her siblings on a dairy farm. Despite the dreary routine of their days, Jas has a unique way of experiencing her world: her face soft like cheese under her mother’s hands, the texture of green warts, like capers, on migrating toads in the village, the sound of “blush words” that aren’t in the Bible.
One winter morning, the disciplined rhythm of her family’s life is ruptured by a tragic accident, and Jas is convinced she is to blame. As her parents’ suffering makes them increasingly distant, Jas and her siblings develop a curiosity about death that leads them into disturbing rituals and fantasies.

Our protagonist, Jas, bloated with despair, tells us her story. She is helplessly lost in her own grief, watching as her parents are unable to find solace in each others company, worse, they are unable to care emotionally and physically for their children after a tragic accident occurs.

The imagery almost to much to bare, I wanted so desperately to tear into these pages. The story, savage in its painful portrayal of a family unravelled by grief and loss of mutual care. This novel deals with very difficult subjects and is unrelentingly bleak. But it’s so carefully written and beautifully expressed that I absolutely fell in love with it.

I haven’t felt this emotionally overwhelmed from reading a book in a long time. I crave this feeling when reading but rarely get to experience it.

An honest, scathing and subversive story peering into the darkness of the human mind. It’s a mixture of innocence and the all too real devastation of guilt and grief.

My highest recommendation.

“I thought about being too small for so much, but that no one told you when you were big enough ... and I asked God if he please couldn't take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. 'Amen.“
Profile Image for Robin.
485 reviews2,626 followers
September 6, 2021
Everything in this book either looks like Hitler, or a sphincter. Every scene is an opportunity for assault, or incest, or animal cruelty. Or, if you're lucky, ruminations on death.

It's easily the most vile thing I've read.

I've read a lot of vile things, and when searching for something comparable, The Painted Bird comes to mind, but even Kosinsky's brutal novel (which I loved) doesn't go this far. His child protagonist is victim to all sorts of atrocities, but doesn't cross the line into perpetrator.

At first, I was in love with the book. For the first 75 pages or so, I was absolutely in love. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's writing, WOW. Every paragraph, a dark and beautiful poem. I couldn't stop reading, couldn't stop noting sentences, revelling in them. And then I switched, from reading compulsively because I adored it, to blasting through so that the book would be out of my life, and as soon as possible.

The premise, simply, is the destruction of a family on a dairy farm in the Netherlands after the accidental drowning of the oldest son. The parents become shadows. The mother stops eating and openly ideates suicide. The father is shut down and cold. So this leaves the three remaining children neglected, traumatized, and lost. Because their parents refuse to acknowledge what happened, the children begin acting out in increasingly disturbing ways.

How many times must one of the girls lie face down with her butt cheeks spread out while something unspeakable happens to her??? How many animals need to be killed while the siblings try to "understand" their brother's death???

Talk about transgressive. Talk about subversive. Talk about SICK. Huh, International Booker Prize committee.

Also, the point of view (present tense, first person) is a puzzling choice for me, given where the story goes. I don't understand how that works. Maybe it doesn't. At best, it's a nasty little trick up the author's dirty, stinking, frayed coat sleeve.

I hate it. I HATE it.

But the writing is perfect.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,431 reviews2,511 followers
August 26, 2020
Winner of the International Booker, 2020
... we've lost our way and there's no-one to ask for directions

It's become a reviewer's cliché to describe a book as 'dark', but wow, this one deserves the epithet! It's grim and gritty, grubby in places, awash with nauseating images and acts and yet still amounts to a wonderfully clear-eyed and compelling picture of a family dislocated and destroyed not just by grief, but by a failure to acknowledge and articulate it.

It's been a while since I read a contemporary piece of lit fic which is built so securely on a sub-structure of figurative language and imagery that also becomes visceral and material: Jas, our child-narrator, is not just filled with grief and anxiety but actualises it by becoming bloated physically by her refusal to let it out. Navigating the difficult territory of adolescence while her family implodes before her eyes means that she confuses her natural curiosity about sex with the repressed violence that emerges from thwarted sadness and grief.

The child narrator is an established trope of the novel, filtering the world through a consciousness that is limited in its knowledge, around which we, as readers, peer to see a world they cannot yet fully comprehend, and Rijneveld pulls off this literary feat with aplomb: Jas could so easily have been an adorably quirky character if her personality and wild imagination hadn't been diverted by guilt and anxiety. Instead, this is a study of vulnerability, of a child trying so hard to hold onto and control her life, but adrift through inexperience, youth and almost-abandonment by the adults who surround her but don't really see her.

At various points this reminded me of other texts: the early short stories of Ian McEwan, Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle - and Shirley jackson is a good comparison as another author who consistently finds the sinister in the quotidian. The writing is deft and admirably controlled, and the translation natural and unobtrusive. There are just two minor jarring moments: when the translator uses the term 'broiled', an Americanism, when other inflections are English ('mum', 'willies'), and when the author compares earthworms to strawberry shoelaces - surely the manufacturers are careful that earthworms are the last thing sweet shoelaces look like?!

Overall, though, this is a tour de force, and one which refuses to look away from the material realities of life whether the scatological or the ever-presence of death or the actualities of farming. Jas' narrative voice is strong and characterful, just be aware that this book will take you to discomfiting places - I can already imagine the ranty 1-star reviews on Amazon should this win the International Booker!

Many thanks to Faber & Faber for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Adina ( A lot of catching up to do) .
826 reviews3,248 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
January 30, 2021
Edit: Winner of the International Booker Prize 2020 and such a big dissapointment this is because it is the only one I could not finish. I have been debating with myself about trying to read this again but I don’t think I will. Obviosly the novel has many qualities and I am probably losing by not reading it but I am not forcing myself.

I tried to read this book multiple times but I failed. It is one of the favourites to make the shortlist according to The Mookse and the Gripes group and that was my motivator to continue. However, the book became more and more disgusting and depressing for me and I just could not handle it, especially during this Coronavirus pandemic.
Profile Image for Tom Mooney.
616 reviews158 followers
February 18, 2020
This book is fucking disgusting. Disturbing. Needlessly graphic.

It was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year but I could barely stomach certain passages. They'll haunt me for quite a while.

There are detailed scenes of children abusing cows (albeit innocently). Abusing each other (sort of naively). Abusing themselves (knowingly). And it all seems so pointless.

Gross and very disappointing.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews33 followers
May 19, 2021
I have so much to say … that I don’t know where to start.

I’ve had this book since first learning about it being the winner of the 2020 International Booker Price—
I put off reading it for obvious
“DISCOMFORT” reasons.
Many of my lovely respecting friends gave it very low ratings — gosh I understand!

There are probably as many - or more? 1 star ratings - than 5 stars….
It’s ABSOLUTELY THE MOST “Discomforting” book I’ve read all year.

I’ve been putting off offering up my views.
My mind is swimming with so many thoughts and feelings….
brutal, devastating, deep, painful ones….
specific things I’d like to share about ‘why’ I’m giving this novel the full 5 star rating…
but it’s more personal to me than I’m willing to write in a public review….
Sadly …
I felt I knew this child….this ten year old girl, Jas!

Even the most graphic disturbing ‘awful’ things this poor girl experienced and detailed ….
as horribly uncomfortable it was to read - I have much respect for this young author.
She brilliantly, skillfully and masterfully manifested brutal, emotional, abusive, haunting, unguarded violence and unspeakable grief in ways I’ve never read.
I understand readers could feel offended- disgusted…
I do!

There are some things in life just too discomforting to imagine….
I could imagine ….
how alone and disconnected Jas and her family were from one another …

AWFUL experiences…
nobody in their right mind speaks of these things…
…. our young protagonist did!
The way she observed her little world …. with and for herself, her siblings, her parents…. was just earth-shuddering…
With a broken heart,
with empathy and compassion….
along with my own grief and sadness ….
acknowledging the BRUTAL gripping, GUT-WRENCHING childhood grief this novel portrays….
for reasons I won’t say here …
a painful - childhood memory surfaced …
….life-altering death, with gross associations….
unbearable family discomforting - disconnected- grief myself …..

I ended up respecting the courage it ‘had’ to take to write this book …
….literary discomforting prose…. extraordinary… hard to deny the validity - to shun it - to pooh-pooh it…..
to ignore the brilliance of discomfort, in my humble opinion.

“The Discomfort of Evening” is bold, brutal, and courageous!
I applaud Marieke Lucas Rijineveld

….with more uncomfortable trigger warnings than all the tea in China…
…..this isn’t a book for most people …
but for the handful of readers it is for ….
well, it simply is! I suspect, like me, feelings run quite deep.
Profile Image for Nat K.
416 reviews155 followers
August 29, 2020

*** Winner of the International Booker Award 2020 ****

*** Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020 ***

"Even though we didn't live in the South Pole, it was cold here, so cold that the lake had frozen over and the cows' drinking troughs were full of ice."

The scene is set that it's cold. Very cold. So cold that the lake near the family farm has frozen over, and is perfect for skating on.

" 'I'll be back before dark', he called to Mum. He turned around once again in the doorway and waved to me, the scene I'd keep replaying in my mind until his arm no longer raised itself and I began to doubt whether we had even said goodbye."

Matthies is a strapping young lad. Around twelve or so. After breakfast, he goes ice skating with friends and never returns.

This story is told by Matthies' younger sister, Jas. The bluntness with which she hears of her brother's death is simply cruel.

Jas blames herself for her brother's fate. With a child's naïvete, she feels she may somehow be responsible. With Christmas forthcoming, Jas is anxious that her pet rabbit not end up on her mother's special silver serving plate. She is convinced that this event will take place. Jas innocently asks that God take her brother instead, without truly intending anything by this wish. It was simply a child's plea to "the Universe" to keep her beloved pet safe.

This book is set in the rural Netherlands, in the early 2000s. A deeply religious family, living and working on a dairy farm, there isn't much time given to expressions of emotion. It’s as if Matthies did not exist, and his death is not spoken of, let alone who he was in life.

The exploration of grief in this story shows how the family is unable to acknowledge their loss properly, let alone comfort each other. Everyone is left to their own devices, and the result is bleak and disturbing.

Jas, her father and younger brother Obbe are putting together hales of bay for the cattle, when Jas mentions her brother Matthias, how he made this job look easy. You can't help but feel sorry for her, with the reaction she receives from her father. Ouch.

" 'We don't think about the dead, we remember them.'
'We can remember out loud, can't we?' I ask.
Dad gives me a penetrating look, jumps from the hay cart and sticks his pitchfork in the ground. 'What did you say?'
I see the muscles in his upper arms tense.
'Nothing', I say.
'Nothing what?'
'Nothing, Dad'
'That's what I thought...' "

Life goes on, and feelings are suppressed and swept aside. Except that they aren't really suppressed at all, but displayed in other ways.

Jas notices her Mum getting thinner, and her Dad returning to do chores on the farm after dinner which he had already completed. The welts on her brother's forehead from where he hits his head against the bedpost at night, and his increasing appetite for the torture of animals. The sexual games that Jas, Obbe and their younger sister begin to play.

Jas' emotional turmoil is displayed by her chronic constipation, her refusal to allow her body to function. And her continued wearing of her red winter coat, which she's worn since Matthies' death, despite it becoming increasingly putrid. Her obsessive thoughts of sex and death (the beginning and the end of the life cycle).

"The little stabs inside my belly get worse, as though holes are being pricked in the lining."

"I keep discovering more and more worries of my own and they keep me awake at night. They seem to be growing."

To add insult to injury, foot and mouth disease finds its way to the family farm. Resulting in the entire herd of cattle having to be destroyed. Another blow to a family that has already suffered enough loss. They are devastated by it. Needless to say, I skipped that chapter entirely.

This is not an easy book to read. It is troubling. I did not read the chapter where inspectors come onto the farm to destroy the cattle. I did not read the pages where Obbe is deliberately cruel to animals. There are entire pages that I skimmed over. No doubt the animal cruelty and sexual experimentation between the children are symbolic of something or other. But what? It’s just so….off. Even living on a farm, where children are more exposed to the facts-of-life, I'd like to think the way these siblings act is a huge stretch of imagination. I certainly hope so.

I'd started reading this books weeks ago. I'd put it down, read something else, come back to it. I couldn't read it all the way through without a break. Why continue with it? I don’t really know. I guess I wanted to see if there was any glimmer of hope for Jas. Just an inkling that there may be some light on the horizon for her. Did she grow up to be a reasonably well adjusted adult? Who can tell.

The discomfort part of the title is fitting. Very apt. Discomfort is what I felt reading this debut novel from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

This book is psychologically haunting and incredibly disturbing. It is claustrophobic. Was it written for shock value? I don't know.

Trigger warnings abound
Graphic over sexulisation of children, incest, animal abuse and cruelty. Emotional distress. I think most taboos have probably been covered in this book. You have been warned.

Shout out to Randwick City Library for having such a great selection of shortlisted titles to choose from. Even late at night, on a whim (which is when I downloaded this book) it was interesting to see that so many of the shortlist were already out on loan.

Addition to original review: 30.August.2020

I've just read online that this book has won the prestigious International Booker Prize. Congrats to Ms. Rijneveld. I have to say it perplexes me, but then so many awards do.
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,321 followers
September 1, 2020
Winner of the International Booker Prize 2020

The last book I read which captured the confusion and darkness of a neglected childhood as perfectly as The Discomfort Of Evening is another Booker winner The God of Small Things. It is a hard task, even for the most accomplished of writers to make a child's voice compelling and immersive.

Poor Jas, our protagonist has an early encounter with death when her brother dies and her family is confronted with grief and the abstruseness of an end to human life. She grows up with an unhealthy obsession with death, fueled further by her parents' depression, neglect and lack of love. She is often an accomplice to her brother's experiments with pain, violence and death.

Limited by her undeveloped comprehensibility, Jas keeps stumbling on through childhood, looking for ways of escape, dreaming of a savior with her little sister Hanna, a savior who will take them to the other side. This other side refers to death just as much as it refers to the actual geographical other side of the lake. The siblings are never allowed to talk about their dead brother and consequentially develop a twisted urge to understand the mechanics of death.

She felt I was good at putting myself in another’s shoes but not so great at kicking off my own and having fun. Sometimes I’d get stuck in the other person for too long because that was easier than staying inside myself.

Jas is confronted with the randomness of chance and the impossibility of choice, and often mistaking one for the other, she turns into a closed, completely packed reservoir of guilt and sacrifice.

When someone stands or lies too close I get the feeling I have to admit something, that I have to justify my presence: I’m here because Mum and Dad believed in me and from that thought I could be born – even though they’ve been having more doubts recently and they’re paying less attention to us. There are creases in my clothes. I’m crumpled like the screwed-up shopping list in the bin, waiting for someone to smooth me out and read me again.

Jas is the embodiment of the idea "the self is other people". In her personality we see the suicidal tendencies of her mother, the grim resignation of her father, Obbe's preoccupation with violence and Hanna's thoughtfulness. In her world of parental neglect and unanswerable questions, even a healthy, preadolescent curiosity about sex and the human anatomy turns into another source of discomfort and nightmares. Her desire to look into herself and simultaneously escape from herself takes up almost all of her mental space and ends very, very badly for her.

This is a well deserved win, in my opinion.

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. This time it was you. You can kill too.

Update: A lot of people seem to be angry/irritated/disappointed that this book won the International Booker. Most readers are displeased because of all the disgusting, uncomfortable scenes. And there are a LOT of disgusting, uncomfortable scenes. But if we looked upon fiction only as a source of comfort or safe space, we'd also have to scorn many of the books that revolutionized the literary scene. This book deserves the prize for the very reasons it's being frowned upon: for testing the bounds of our imagination, infringing on our comfort zones and forcing us to confront the inherent discomfort within it.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,211 followers
September 6, 2020
The rightful winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize

Death announces itself in most cases, but we’re often the ones who don’t want to see or hear it. We knew that the ice was too weak in some places, and we knew the foot-and-mouth wouldn’t skip our village.

De avond is ongemak was a bestselling debut novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, published when they were 26, and has been translated from the Dutch as The Discomfort of Evening by Michele Hutchison.

The novel is begins just before Christmas 2000 and is narrated by Jas who begins the novel:

I was ten and stopped taking off my coat. That morning, Mum had covered us one by one in udder ointment to protect us from the cold.

She lives with her parents, her older brothers Matthies and Obbe and her younger sister Hanna on the family diary farm:

No one stood a chance against the cows anyway; they were always more important.

She is worried her father is fattening up her pet rabbit Dieuwertje (I’d named him after the curly-haired female presenter on children’s TV because I found her so pretty. - that being Dieuwertje Blok, who rather marvellously, narrated the Dutch audiobook https://twitter.com/mariek1991/status...).

And Matthies is going on ahead to the lake where he was going to take part in the local skating competition with a couple of his friends. It was a twenty-mile route, and the winner got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it, but when she asks to come with him he refuses and then more quietly so that only I could hear it, ‘Because we’re going to the other side.’ ‘I want to go to the other side, too,’ I whispered. ‘I’ll take you with me when you’re older.’

As he leaves Jas ponders:I thought about being too small for so much, but that no one told you when you were big enough, how many centimetres on the door-post that was, and I asked God if He please couldn’t take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. ‘Amen.

Matthies is indeed taken – the local vet comes to break the news that, skating where he shouldn’t, Matthies fell through the ice and drowned, and the family is devastated. Her parents retreat into silence, Jas can’t quite comprehend his death

The cancelling of the family festivities and taking down of the Christmas tree strikes her more than the news: It was only then that I felt a stab in my chest, more than at the vet’s news. Matthies was sure to return but the Christmas tree wouldn’t.. And her denial includes refusing to take off her coat, which she wears continuously for months, and self-imposed severe constipation: I could hold in my poo. I wouldn’t have to lose anything I wanted to keep from now on.

These events have echoes of the authors own life, except they were only three when their brother died in a car accident:

Mijn eigen broer Arjen was twaalf toen hij verongelukte. Ik was net drie en ik begreep niet hoe hij ineens zomaar weg was. Alles werd meteen anders. Er werd amper over zijn dood gepraat en mijn ouders haalden onmiddellijk de kerstboom weg. Kinderen snappen dat niet; zodra je zo’n boom verwijdert, wordt het nóg nadrukkelijker dat er iets ergs aan de hand is.

My own brother Arjen was twelve when he died in an accident. I was just three years old and I didn't understand how he suddenly disappeared. Everything immediately changed. There was hardly any mention of his death and my parents immediately removed the Christmas tree. Children don't understand that; as soon as you remove such a tree, it becomes even more emphatic that something bad is going on.

(From https://www.ad.nl/utrecht/als-ik-schr... - Google translation)

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was previously known as a poet, and has explained in interviews (https://www.volkskrant.nl/cultuur-med...) how, in their view, the move to prose required them to both master dialogue, but also introduce more scatological elements (“Maar in een roman moet er af en toe ook gewoon iemand even gaan poepen of een boterham met kaas eten” = “But in a novel, now and then someone just has to poop or eat a cheese sandwich”), and cites as her inspiration the novelist Jan Wolkers, who is also quoted in the epigraph (“Hij schreef wat hij wilde schrijven, over seks, het geloof, over alles” = “He wrote what he wanted to write about sex, faith, about everything.”)

Faith plays a key role – Jas’s parents, as the authors own, are members of the Reformed Church. Her own relationship with God is complicated, but her language, and that of the novel, is inflected with scripture: I’ve got so many words but it’s as if fewer and fewer come out of me, while the biblical vocabulary in my head is pretty much bursting at the seams.

Jas’s upbringing is strict. The television is hidden away in a cabinet as something shameful and even when watched the content is controlled, and ideally confined to the wholesome Dieuwertje Blok:

We didn’t have any of the commercial channels, only Nederland 1, 2 and 3. Dad said there wasn’t any nudity on them. He pronounced the word ‘nudity’ as though a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth–he spat as he said it.

Popular music is generally frowned upon, although an exception is made for Boudewijn de Groot, even her mother unable to avoid joining in with Land van Maas en Waal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOKwT...

And the death of their son only causes her parents to retreat further everything that requires secrecy here is accepted in silence, leaving the children to learn the facts of life themselves and to experiment with violence and sexual feelings, and the imaginative Jas to fantasise about the mysterious ‘other side’ of the lake and (bizarrely) that her mother has hidden some refugees from Hitler (whose birthday Jas shares) in the cellar:

Anything can happen, I think then, but nothing can be prevented. The plan about death and a rescuer, Mum and Dad who don’t lie on top of each other any more, Obbe who is growing out of his clothes faster than Mum can learn the washing labels off by heart, and the way not just his body is growing but also his cruelty; the ticking insects in my belly which make me rock on top of my teddy bear and get out of bed exhausted, or why we don’t have crunchy peanut butter any more, why the sweets tin has grown a mouth with Mum’s voice in it that says, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ or why Dad’s arm has become like a traffic barrier: it descends on you whether you wait your turn or not; or the Jewish people in the basement that no one talks about, just like Matthies. Are they still alive?

And as the novel progresses into 2001, further tragedy strikes, as foot and mouth disease spreads from the UK to the Netherlands. The quote that opens my review feels particularly chilling read in February 2020 as Covid-19 spreads around the world.

Highly recommended and a contender to win the overall prize. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.

An English-language interview with the author:
Profile Image for Ilja Leonard  Pfeijffer.
Author 62 books903 followers
April 6, 2021
Dit boek kan gelezen worden als een volkomen overtuigend pleidooi voor de afschaffing van het platteland en in één moeite door ook van de laatste restjes God. Zelden heb ik een boek gelezen met zo’n beklemmend, claustrofobisch en deprimerend decor. Zelfs de fantasie biedt hier geen ontsnapping, maar slechts analogieën die zich steeds dieper vastzuigen in de modder. Kortom: meesterlijk. Eredivisie.
Profile Image for Jennifer Welsh.
228 reviews177 followers
April 28, 2021
I loved this book for the very reason many will hate it: it taints our image of children. Children are little people, as complex in their need to make sense of outside stimuli as we are. There is our adult fantasy of innocence, and then – much more profoundly – there is true innocence, one that doesn’t know yet right from wrong, as taught to us by our communities. This is a rural community, in The Netherlands. The houses are far-between, the weather cold. The central family lives on a farm. There are four children. Then there are three. The oldest sibling – a son – sinks to his death in a frozen lake. The parents disappear. They are there in body, only. The middle girl is our story guide, and she is hyper-vigilant. A large, quiet focus of hers is on her mother, watching so she doesn’t disappear by her own hand. An undercurrent of violence permeates each one-on-one relationship within the family. Some of that violence expresses itself sexually, between siblings. But it’s just on the edge. In fact, edges are a subtle theme in this story. The whole thing feels sharp and cold, tentative and curious, as our narrator explores the edges of life. And in the end, our question, “how far from the edge will any of them venture, how far will our narrator go?” is answered.

There’s also a coat. A red coat she won’t take off. Ever. She doesn’t care how this effects what she carries with her as a result of never taking it off. The story opens with the coat. The coat has an arc of its own. It feels like a writer’s conscious symbol, not without merit. But it is the edges that make this novel a work of art.
Profile Image for Britta Böhler.
Author 9 books1,868 followers
August 28, 2020
Nope, a 10 (-12) year old child narrator that thinks like a grown up just doesn't work for me.
Plus: When almost everything the narrator sees is compared to some form of snot or poop or bile or vomit the 'gross-ness' gets, well... boring.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,863 followers
October 3, 2021
I read The Discomfort of Evening when it won the 2020 Booker International prize and was too disturbed by it to leave a review. Reading it a second time I found it just as disturbing but, now that I know what's coming, I can appreciate the artfulness and the relentless purpose of the novel. It's breathtaking in many more ways than I thought possible. I still dislike it very much, but it does what it sets out to do so it's a five-star 'i hate it' from me.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,264 followers
September 7, 2021
Winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize.

I nod and think about the teacher who said I’d go far with my empathy and boundless imagination, but in time I’d have to find words for it because otherwise everything and everybody stays inside you. And one day, just like the black stockings which my classmates sometimes tease me about wearing because we’re Reformists – even though I never wear black stockings – I will crumple in on myself until I can only see darkness, eternal darkness.

Having been chosen with a group of other Goodreads friends to read “Tyll” as part of the Reading Agency’s shadowing of the 2020 International Booker Prize, I decided to read the rest of the shortlist – something I had previously decided not to do and instead concentrate my reading time (severely hampered by COVID-19) on the Women’s Prize longlist.

I had some concerns about this book before I began given: one of the same friends had abandoned it; another marked it as “difficult to enjoy … gratuitous … an exercise in breaking as many taboo’s as possible”

Barry Pierce in the Irish Times describing it as part of a trend of novels that “focus on .. grotesque characters written almost grotesquely”, a genre he describes as “abject fiction” with as its “ur text” Eileen Mosfegh’s “Eileen” – possibly in view the most execrable book ever to be longlisted for the Booker (albeit as much due to the ridiculous plot as the scatological writing). It is a genre which I seem to strongly dislike and avoid on Philippians 4:8 grounds; although genetically I seem pre-disposed towards it (my clone being a particular fan of Patti Yumi Cottrell, a persistent practitioner - and of this book).

The story of this autobiographically influenced book is simple.

Jas, is a 10 year old girl, living with her two brothers, sister and strict Dutch Reformed parents on a dairy farm in late 2000 through to 2001. The book opens immediately with tragedy – her brother Matthies drowns after falling through the ice in a long distance skating race (the author’s own brother dying when the author was 3)– and the book examines the fall out of this tragic event on the family, functioning as an examination of dysfunctional grief.

Jas blames herself for the death – having struck a bargain with God to save her pet rabbit (which she was convinced was being fattened up ready for Christmas). Her mother reverts to a form of eating disorder – repeatedly cutting out elements of her diet in a form of self-purging/fasting. Her father sinks even further than ever into anger and silence, something provoked still further by the destruction of his dairy herd after Foot and Mouth sweeps from the UK across Holland. And the children descend into experimenting with a mix of self-harm, animal abuse and sexual exploration.

The imagery in the book is strong – Jas drawing strongly on his farm experience to try (and normally fail) to make sense of the world around him.

The sight of his brother’s dead body is

“Matthies’s face was as pale as fennel”

As he struggles with his inner demons:

“There weren’t any words to take the edge off fear, the way the blades of the combine decapitated the rapeseed plants to keep only the bit you can use.”

Or as he makes sense of how his non-communicative parents could have got together, while also ruminating (an excellent choice of words by me!) on what he understands of sex via what he sees on the farm:

It’s still a mystery how our parents found each other. The thing is, Dad’s hopeless at looking. When he’s lost something it’s usually in his pocket, and when he goes to do the shopping he always comes back with something different than what was on the list: Mum’s the wrong kind of yoghurt, but one he was happy enough with and vice versa. They’ve never told us about how they met – Mum never thinks it a good time. There are rarely any good times here, and if we have them we only realize afterwards. My suspicion is that it was exactly like with the cows, that one day Granny and Grandpa opened my mum’s bedroom door and put Dad in with her like a bull. After that they shut the door and hey presto: there we were. From that day on, Dad called her ‘wife’ and Mum called him ‘husband’. On good days ‘little man’ and ‘little woman’, which I found strange, as though they were worried they’d forget each other’s sex, or that they belonged to each other.

But these excerpts are some of the few highlights. Increasingly though she draws heavily on the dark side of what sees around him in nature and in farming – her language increasingly filled with imagery of decay, blight, excrement, the mould on the left-over bakery items his father buys, rotting vegetables

When we arrived at the mangels, some of them were rotten. The mushy white pulp that looked like pus stuck to my fingers when I picked them up.

And to be honest, as so often with this genre, the sheer repetitiveness of the gross imagery turns what could be shocking into something increasingly tedious. The writers in this genre have never subscribed to the “less is more” theory of writing.

The writing becomes very predictable and easy to satire – early in my reading of the book I posted on a discussion forum

The book is growing on me like the mould on the rancid dead hamster festering in my brother’s bed, mould that reminds me of the patches my mother scrapes off our buns in turn uncovering the currants that remind me of sores on the pestilential back of our sow. As my father quotes from Leviticus “a persistent defiling mould; the novel is unclean”

Only to find to my amusement that a decaying hamster and currants (in this case like drowning beetles) featured later in the book.

The other part of my spoof quote was Biblical, Jas has been thoroughly immersed in the Bible and as any discussion in his family dries up, it’s the language of the Bible that he repeatedly reaches to.

I’ve got so many words but it’s as if fewer and fewer come out of me, while the biblical vocabulary in my head is pretty much bursting at the seams.

I found this a much more successful piece of writing by the author (themselves with a strong religious background) – the high point being this excellent analogy:

Suddenly I realize what’s going on. Everything from the recent past falls into place, all the times we were fragile, and I say, ‘This is another of the plagues from Exodus, it must be. Only they’re coming to us in the wrong order. Do you understand?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, you had a nosebleed which meant water changed into blood. We’ve had the toad migration, head lice at school, the death of the firstborn, horseflies around the muck-heap, a grasshopper squashed by Obbe’s boot, ulcers on my tongue from the fried egg, and hailstorms.’ ‘And you think that’s why there’s a cattle plague now?’ Hanna asks with a shocked expression. She’s laid her hand on her heart, exactly above the Barbie’s ears, as though she’s not allowed to hear what we’re discussing. I nod slowly. After this, there’s one more to come, I think to myself, and that’s the worst one: darkness, total darkness, daytime eternally clad in Dad’s Sunday overcoat.

Unfortunately, the book then descends further into gratuitousness and repetitiveness – but this time its in the narrative action rather than the analogies. The (as described earlier) self-harm, animal abuse and sexual exploration is described in rather sickening detail – in a manner which I felt added little to the book and subtracted much from any ability to appreciate it.

The practitioners of this genre also do not subscribe to the “show not tell” theory of writing.

When they do, I think the book is more convincing – no more so than in the powerful ending.
There are a few other areas of the book which I find less convincing.

The first is fidelity to the set-up: a book set in 2000-01 has a narrator whose brother listens to an album from 2003 and how herself anticipates the 2006 demotion of Pluto as a planet, while also seeming to change age from 10 to 12 in only a few months (skipping 11 altogether).

More generally I did not find the age of the narrator convincing. Most attempts at writing children seem to me to over-estimate the maturity of the children; this book seems the opposite – Jas I find reads more like an 8-year-old than 10-12 year old, for example when (at least) 12:

I’d nervously shaken my head: once Mum was behind the glass of the TV set, we’d never get her back, or maybe only in pixels when the screen was snowy, and what would become of Dad then?

But maybe this is simply a narrator on the cusp of adolescence and caught between adult experimentation and childlike fears – and lacking supportive and loving parents to allow her to navigate this transition against a background of grieving.

The most touching part of the book speaks to this:

Promise me this will stay between us, dear toads, but sometimes I wish I had different parents. Do you understand that?’ I continue. ‘Parents like Belle’s who are as soft as shortbread just out of the oven and give her lots of cuddles when she’s sad, frightened or even very happy. Parents that chase away all the ghosts from under your bed, from inside your head, and run through a summary of the week with you every weekend like Dieuwertje Blok does on TV, so you don’t forget everything you achieved that week, all the things you tripped up on before scrabbling to your feet again. Parents that see you when you’re talking to them – even though I find it terrifying to look people in the eye, as though other people’s eyeballs are two lovely marbles you can continuously win or lose. Belle’s parents go on exotic holidays and make tea for her when she comes home from school. They’ve got hundreds of different sorts including aniseed and fennel, my favourite tea. Sometimes they drink it sitting on the floor because that’s more comfortable than sitting in a chair. And they horse around with each other without it turning into fighting. And they say sorry as often as they’re nasty to each other.

While most of the imagery is drawn from the bible or the farm around her, I was not sure if this quote was a failure of writing (unpleasant imagery drawn from outside those two areas) or bad translation of locusts:

When Mum and Dad rescued the beans they had just frozen, they lay wet and floppy on the kitchen table. The little green bodies looked dismal, like an exterminated plague of bush crickets.

One thing that is interesting about this year’s International Booker Prize shortlist is that (unlike some years where my impression is books are picked which were relatively obscure even in their homeland) they have picked a number of books which were very popular in their original language – this book for example (translated by Michele Hutchinson) selling 50,000+ copies despite its incredibly challenging style.

I wonder how many of the 50,000 copies were actually quietly put away well before being finished – this is a book which despite its merits I would find impossible to recommend.

If you read it you may also quietly decide to abandon part way through.

Lots of people want to run away, but the ones who really do rarely announce it beforehand: they just go.
Profile Image for Emily B.
426 reviews421 followers
October 18, 2022
This is an extremely odd book. It’s graphic but at the same time sort of detached.

What really struck me was how it felt so old fashioned but on the other hand computers other signs of modernity is mentioned.

The best thing about it for me was the insight into the way the narrator thinks and the childish ways she tries to make sense of her family life.
Profile Image for Eva Thielen.
9 reviews7 followers
April 15, 2018
Werkelijk prachtig geschreven, dat wel, maar voor mij was het echt 'te'. Én die punaise, én de jas, én de hamster, de padden, de haan, én het inseminatiepistool, én dat blok groene zeep, én het niet naar de wc kunnen en ga zo maar door. Ik ben dol op ongemak en wreedheid in romans, maar door de dosering raakte het verhaal en de personages me uiteindelijk niet genoeg.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,072 reviews1,094 followers
March 24, 2022
For decades, Dutch literature has been dominated by tormented male authors, men who mostly wrote about middle-aged men, completely stuck in life, full of frustration, mostly drinking, and often with a very derogatory view of the opposite sex. Epigones such as Jeroen Brouwers, A.F.Th. Van der Heijden, Leon De Winter, and to a lesser degree Tom Lanoye and Arnon Grunberg (I agree, the latter two focus on a slightly younger generation and have different accents) brought this genre to unprecedented heights thanks to their exceptional literary talent. Most of their stories are gems to read, although you can get irritated by their extreme miserabilism.

I have the impression that a new generation has emerged in the Dutch literary landscape, and this time of young women and men, with a different take on life. Halleluia! I'm not going to give a list here, but Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (° 1991) definitely belongs to that new literary top. Immediately, from page 1, he* succeeds in getting our full attention with a distinctive style that is ultra-imaginative and focussed on tangible details, referring to life on the farm. The story is about a girl of 10 to 12 years old who grows up on a farm in the Dutch Bible Belt, in an atmosphere of suffocating doctrinal rigidity. The central drama is the death of her eldest brother, who drowns when skating, a few days before Christmas.

Our protagonist describes the shock this causes to her and especially to her family, her remaining brother and sister and her parents. She mercilessly portrays how the accident destroys life on the farm (almost literally), and especially the traumatic consequences this has for her growing up. Yes, this is indeed a coming-of-age story, but one with a very sharp and bitter edge. Our protagonist has no name, we just learn that after the accident she refuses to ever take off her red coat, and is therefore sometimes simply called "Jas/Coat". This can count as a way of shielding herself from the outside world. “Jas/Coat" also copes with the trauma by escaping into a world of utmost sensibility, desperately trying to experience what her brother must have felt. This gradually results in all kinds of little, but cruel experiments, including on a sexual level. Of course, the seemingly unshakable faith of her parents is constantly being dealt with: the religious prescriptions are stripped down with ruthless sarcasm, while at the same time for “Jas/Coat” they remain the ultimate point of reference.

The charm of the story lies above all in the open-mindedness of our young narrator, who mercilessly records minor but significant details, and constantly questions everything, driven by a search for herself and for the attention of her parents who are drifting away. She describes her situation very graphically as a stuck state, concretely illustrated by her "poo problem", which recurs almost throughout the book. Likewise the whole family, and the farm, are impregnated by death. Towards the end of the book everything seems to derail and the story gets rather macabre aspects that push it towards a grotesque. To be honest, there the author lost me: in my opinion, Rijneveld takes his exuberant imagery just a bit too far, drowning the story with it.

I am by no means the first to say this, but Rijneveld's story is very reminiscent of Het smelt("Melting"), by Lize Spit, another young epigone of Dutch literature. The theme and especially the tenor of the two books is largely the same (a youth in the countryside, in a suffocating bourgeois/religious atmosphere), certain incidents and situations are very related (a traumatic experience that ruins a young life, and - typically - in both novels there is a rope hanging over a beam in the shed or in the attic) and even the denouement of the two books is very similar. Of course, there are differences, and both have their own, distinctive strength: with Spit it is the ingenious composition that stands out, but with Rijneveld it is the expressive quality of his prose that is phenomenal. Neither are uplifting reads, they both grab you by the throat.

Though, in my opinion, 'The Discomfort of Evening' is not a complete success, Rijneveld shows that he has a lot to offer. I am very eager to read his next one.

* I've re-edited my original review, since Rijneveld has made it clear he wants to be labelled in the male category.
Profile Image for Lea.
856 reviews178 followers
December 10, 2021
It feels almost wrong to give this just one star because the writing, from a stylistic point of view, is pretty good. I really liked the strong beginning and wasn't turned off by the gruesome and depressing themes. I really like reading about sad things and I'm always interested in the depicition of trauma - and this has a rather good and realistic childhood trauma depiction (some of it clearly inspired by Rijneveld's own life experience).

Gloom and doom, death, uncomfortable christian upbringing, incest - these are all not things that make me put a book down. Not even the animal cruetly or physically disgusting descriptions of body fluids and illness (although those make me quite uncomfortable). But what all these things also aren't is a story or a narrative. And as far as narrative goes, this "novel" is very weak. And once I grew accustomed to the vibe, the descriptions became very repetitous and a little boring. By the end, I just wanted it all to be over. You can only read so much about a child's butthole.

This book gave me very strong "I'm sorry that happened to you, but where's my novel?" feelings. Maybe this is better for people who don't have their own childhood trauma to reminisce about, but even then, it feels almost exploititive. Is this well-written? Yes, but only a sentence to sentence, maybe scene-for-scene basis. I'm sure Rijneveld is a good poet, but this does not make them a good novelist.

Ps: Booker Prize - Get your act together and stop giving your prizes only to the most trauma-filled novels. Writing about trauma is fine, even a good thing to explore, but it's not a substitute for a plot.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,023 reviews460 followers
December 21, 2020
I felt very uncomfortable reading this novel. I wanted to just finish it so that I could be over and done with it.

NOTE: I was going to give this 2 stars at outset of writing this review. I know it is 3 stars. So bear with me as I struggle with myself…

I think my rating (2 stars) could be unfair. It is based on my visceral reaction to the novel…the terrible story and different things that happened within it. Could this stuff have happened? I guess so — terrible things happen in life. So yes, the events in this book could happen in reality. I guess the novel was so graphic it was hard to tell myself that I liked the novel…I just could not dissociate the writing which definitely merited 3 or 3.5 stars (in my book) with what I was reading. I’m not sure what to do. I was going to give it a 3 early on, and then it sunk to 2 then to 1.5 and now I am thinking of making it a 3 but in part because I have now read a bunch of reviews. And quite a few remarks that it made for uncomfortable reading…but that did not negate the overall positive reviews. I’m going with 3 because I do believe bad shit happens and the telling of it, in either nonfiction or fiction form, does not make the telling of it bad. The events are bad, yes, and the telling could be either spectacular, or good, or so-so , or bad. This, to my mind. was good. So 3. Now let me untwist myself from the knots I have made in my head. 🙄

I was forewarned that I would be in for some rough sledding with all 5 blurbs on the back indicating this:
• Shockingly good. It’s a classic. —Max Porter
• Rijneveld’s language renders the word, anew, revealing the shocks and violence of early youth through the prisms of a Dutch dairy farm.—International Booker Prize judges, The Irish Times
• Rijneveld’s gorgeous, almost tactile prose brings to life, with unforgiving precision, the fears and fantasies haunting a wrecked childhood. A relentless, delicately devastating novel.—Hernan Diaz
• Remarkable…Confident in its brutality, yet contained rather than gratuitous. [The Discomfort of Evening] introduces readers to both a memorably off-key narrator and a notable new talent.—The Observer (UK)
• [The Discomfort of Evening] takes the reader of a haunting journey. Rijneveld is also an award-winning poet, which shows in…the beautifully wild images that linger in the mind.—The Guardian (UK)

This was the 2020 International Booker Prize winner that beat out the other five novels on the short list—Tyll (Daniel Kehlmann); The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa); The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (Shokoofeh Azar); The Adventures of China Iron (Gabriela Cabezón Cámara); and Hurricane Season (Fernanda Melchor).

So…the plot can be fairly easily summarized. There is a mother and father and their children, two sons and two girls and they live on a dairy farm and the mother and father are quite religious (Dutch Reformed). The oldest son drowns early on in the novel, and the rest of the novel describes how the individual family members cope with the tragedy, including the narrator, the oldest daughter Jas (12 years old), a seriously and chillingly disturbed youngest son, Obbe, the youngest daughter Hanna, and the mother and father. Anything more and I think some stuff is revealed that would be better left to be discovered by those who want to read this novel.

There is sexual violence, non-sexual physical violence, incest, cruelty to animals (I count three distinct acts…one is bad enough but three?), and the eating of boogers. The eating of boogers??! Yes, that is what I wrote. 😐

The blurbs on the back over of the book rhapsodize about Rijneveld’s language/prose and some of it, granted, was good but there were a disturbing and noticeable surfeit of similes in the book. I guess it was intentional, but I thought perhaps an editor would recommend getting rid of a lot of them. If similes were worth $10 each, by the time I got through with reading this book I would have been a rich man. 🤨

• Rijneveld wants to use the word “their” when describing Rijneveld (no the or she). Their grew up on a dairy farm, his parents were from the Dutch Reformed religion, and when he was three, his older brother was knocked over and killed by a bus.
• A NY Times article about the author and the book and his prior works of poetry, etc.: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/bo...

• blogsite review: https://efsunland.com/2020/09/07/revi...
Profile Image for Pavel Nedelcu.
303 reviews124 followers
March 15, 2022

When a family goes downhill at a crucial moment in the development of children, who are fragile, incomplete in their maturation process, the biggest problem is the remaining traumas that mark for life and change these developments in the negative.

Rijneveld's story is about a peasant family in a Dutch village between the late 90s and early 2000s, a family based on fragile foundations such as, for instance, religious fanaticism, that can easily be broken, with unimaginable consequences for both constituent parts: parents and children.

Yes, there is some discomfort in the writing, in the issues addressed, in the plot. And there is also the pleasure of describing this discomfort on the part of Rijneveld, so that the reader could fully perceive the uncomfortable (when not desperate) situation of this family.

The psycho-physical degradation is spreading from characters to readers, from one moment to the next something bad is expected to happen, as, in fact, it will.

It is a courageous choice, that of Rijneveld, to tackle, going straight to the point, themes that, usually, literature excludes or mentions incidentally.

To convey some discomfort here too: Did you know that many people, possibly all, shit & piss, and that children who discover sexuality behave strangely, in addition to eating their own boogers?

The great risk when describing such things is that the author does it with no other purpose than to astonish. I am really glad that was NOT the case in this novel.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,048 reviews903 followers
March 24, 2021
Winner of the International Booker Prize

Despite its striking cover and beautiful title, this was a discomforting novel. It's not the kind of novel one enjoys. Its themes are not fun - there's grief that manifests in uncomfortable ways, self-mutilation, animal cruelty/death, incestuous sexual experimentations and a whole lot of weird stuff. To my great relief and consternation, I believed it all and the weird stuff never felt gratuitous or exaggerated.

I usually struggle with child narrators. It wasn't the case with Jas, the young twelve-year-old narrator of this novel. She was naive and candid enough while also very observant. Her life is a bit unusual, not only she's brought up on a dairy farm, but she's brought up in a strict religious family. I don't know why I was surprised to discover that there still are religious people in one of the most progressive countries in the world.
This is a short novel, but it was thought-provoking and eye-opening. Duality, contradictions, urges, grief are well explored. Now that I'm writing these thoughts, I'm even more impressed with this young writer.

Unfortunately, this is not a novel one goes ga-ga over or recommends to others. Or you recommend it with caveats and trigger warnings.

I am glad I was curious enough to try it. That was greatly facilitated by the library audiobook.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
January 14, 2023
“I know, though, that we'd have to come from a better family to be able to bury our childhood - we'd have to lie under a layer of earth ourselves, but the time isn't ripe for that yet.”

How can I write about this book? The Discomfort of Evening by Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was awarded the International Man Booker Prize for 2020 and I see many very bright and thoughtful people here could either not finish the book or ended up so disturbed by it that they one-starred it. Being Dutch-American, I’d been feeling I should read more Dutch books, and here was one that was supposedly good. And I agreed, but not without putting it down a few times and despite a nightmare or two. But that was the author’s intent, to capture the horrors of trauma. Hey, a book for our times. So this won’t exactly be a review, but I’ll say I, too, was deeply disturbed by the book even as I was completely taken in by the ten-year-old girl narrator. There’s much lyrical writing and many starkly painful descriptions of death, sexual acts, animal cruelty.

What’s it about? The story is told by Jas, who loses her brother after she prays for him to die rather than her rabbit. And then the whole family, living on a dairy farm, steeped in the Dutch Reformed Church, falls apart in grief and madness--Mom stops eating and openly admits she wants to die; Dad shuts down and goes into his own madness even as he also loses his cattle to disease, and the three remaining kids are left to fend for themselves, rudderless. The spectre of a noose is present throughout.

There’s a lot of disturbing vulnerable or vicious coming-of-age books--I’ve read Foster and The Ice Palace recently; there’s Lord of the Flies--that defy the often commonplace understanding that youth is about innocence and adulthood about corruption. That’s part of this book, for sure, that the horrors of the world can shape you--break you--even at the earliest ages. The children in Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible--for the most part good kids-- are left to raise themselves. The kids in Rinjeveld’s book are mostly not handling things well, but why do they have to be? They’re in trauma, and they’re kids.

But it’s something else, too. I’m Dutch-American, as I said. My grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s sides--Schaafsmas and Kuypers--came over to the US in the late nineteenth century; both families lived in the Groningen area. The Schaafsmas were sheep farmers for generations. My mother’s family, coopers, barrel-makers, cask-makers-- had in its lineage the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, aligned with John Calvin. Both of my parents' families settled in Dutch western Michigan--the Holland and Grand Rapids area. They spoke Dutch and never taught us; they also spoke Frisian with each other at times.

I knew (a little, maybe wrongly) that a lot of Dutch families came to the US because of religious oppression. Many were extremists. The Reformed Church featured in this book is one with which I am familiar, though the dark madness Rijneveld depicts I never personally knew. My family is/was largely sane and loving. But I knew of the Protestant Reformed Church, where kids dressed in clothes without bright colors, no tv or radio, no Sunday work or play; my family's version is called the Christian Reformed Church--I also couldn’t play outside and we couldn’t watch TV on Sunday, either--my parents went to church three days on Sunday, one service all in Dutch; I was required to go twice on Sunday. I was forced by my family and church to make public Profession of Faith and the elders urged me to renounce all worldly pursuits, including the watching of films and contemporary music and dancing. I refused. But my religion banned dancing; we did, anyway; we could these events "foot functions."

I really do not know if this is true but we had heard, growing up, that there were more churches per square mile in the Zeeland area of Michigan, near Holland, than any other place in the country, but also more venereal disease and teenage pregnancy. Repression. I and my friends snorted with dark laughter when we heard this in the early seventies.

The Dutch Reformed Church shapes much of the horror of this book. It provides the basic grim background, and is foregrounded many times when Dad quotes from The Bible--"The Authorized Version." It begins with the death of a brother but the religious extremism provides no comfort, only further horror. Is it fair to Dutch Christians? Everything the mad Dad quotes from the Bible to threaten his children I know. But this Dad is crazed in a way I have never met.

“I’ve discovered that there are two ways of losing your belief: some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves.”

In my church as I grew up--steeped in a Calvinist first principle of Original Sin as a way of understanding all the bad in the world--I heard much more about sin than love, much more about Hell than Heaven. My church was one of the most conservative in western Michigan, though my family was happy, not brutal or cruel. In this book the parents are just lost, and thus the kids are.

Jas has deft and lyrical observations, but she is spinning in her grief and her own madness:

“I nod and think about the teacher who said I’d go far with my empathy and boundless imagination, but in time I’d have to find words for it because otherwise everything and everybody stays inside you. And one day, just like the black stockings which my classmates sometimes tease me about wearing because we’re Reformists – even though I never wear black stockings – I will crumple in on myself until I can only see darkness, eternal darkness.”

“I don’t want to feel any sadness, I want action; something to pierce my days, like bursting a blister with a pin so that the pressure is eased.”

“Later I sometimes thought that this was when the emptiness began. . .”

At one point Jas decides to never take off her coat:

“Nobody knows my heart. It's hidden deep inside my coat, my skin, my ribs. My heart was important for nine months inside my mother's belly, but once I left the belly, everyone stopped caring whether it beat enough times per hour. No one worries when it stops or begins to beat fast, telling me there must be something wrong.”

I left the Dutch Reformed Church that I saw in my experience--though I had friends who had much better and more uplifting and loving experiences--was dark and repressive and joyless. I think that this is a book about loss, grief, madness, framed by the darkness of a religion that provides no relief, no succor, no healing balm, no joy. What happens in the book as the family descends into madness is very disturbing though also is filled with amazing observations and lyrical language, too. It’s horrible and heart-breaking and at the same time kind of amazingly depicted at times. I am quite sure it is too graphic for many people and I understand that and warn you.

“We find ourselves in loss and we are who we are – vulnerable beings, like stripped starling chicks that fall naked from their nests and hope they’ll be picked up again.”
Profile Image for Ellie Hamilton.
115 reviews77 followers
March 20, 2023
This was one of the darkest books I've ever read but definitely a new favourite, beautifully written and translated just wow.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,256 reviews49 followers
August 26, 2020
Winner of the Booker International Prize 2020

Another book that it is difficult to enjoy and even harder to assess - for me too much of the brutality seems a little gratuitous, but it is undoubtedly striking and will probably be memorable.

The narrator of the book is Jas, and at the start of the book she is ten years old, the third of four children living on a Dutch dairy farm. The story describes her mental disintegration as her family is scarred by the death of her elder brother Matthies and later the foot and mouth outbreak which loses them all of their cattle. The games she and her brother Obbe devise spill over into animal cruelty and sexual abuse, and in some ways it almost seems like an exercise in breaking as many taboos as possible.
Profile Image for Intellectual_Thighs.
237 reviews349 followers
July 26, 2021
Τι παντοδύναμοι πιστεύαμε ότι ήμαστε.

Αν πατήσω τη γραμμή, θα πεθάνουν οι γονείς μου.
Αν φάω μόνο το γύρω γύρω απ'το μπισκότο, θα κερδίσω την τάπα που θέλω.
Αν κρατήσω τα μάτια μου ανοιχτά χωρίς να τα ανοιγοκλείσω, θα με αγαπήσει η Ζωή.

Αόριστοι κανόνες, άλογα τελετουργικά, ασυνάρτητα ξόρκια, φανταστικοί νόμοι, τα παιδιά είναι κυβερνήτες και νομοθέτες του δικού τους σκληρού κόσμου, όπου το παράλογο βολτάρει αγκαζέ με την πραγματικότητα.

Η Τζάκετ θυμώνει με τον αδερφό της για κάτι ανούσιο και εύχεται να πεθάνει. Κι όταν ο Θάνατος έρχεται, εκείνη πιστεύει πως ήταν η δική της φωνή που τον κάλεσε, ότι είναι υπεύθυνη που έχει τη δική του θέση στο τραπέζι τους, που κατέλαβε το χώρο ανάμεσα στους γονείς της και συνεχώς απλώνεται, που απαιτεί από εκείνη και τα αδέρφια της θυσίες για να τους αφήσει ήσυχους.

Όταν ο Θάνατος κοιτάζει αλλού, αφήνει πίσω τη μυρωδιά του, το πένθος. Η οικογένεια ποτίζεται με αυτή και αφήνει την απώλεια να κατακλύσει το σπίτι με ένα Θεό επόπτη και τιμωρό πάνω απ'τα κεφάλια τους. Τα παιδιά σαν μικροί μάγοι, προσπαθούν να βρουν τα τελετουργικά εκείνα που θα φέρουν πίσω τον αδερφό τους και θα διώξουν το θάνατο. Ζώα θυσιάζονται, ρούχα γίνονται ασπίδες, αμαρτίες καταπνίγονται. Οι γονείς παρασυρμένοι στη θλίψη, θέλουν να τρέξουν μακριά μα δεν μπορούν και ξεθωριάζουν.

Αυτό το βιβλίο μυρίζει γη, κοπριά, γάλα, σπέρμα, κάτουρο και θλίψη. Καταγράφει μια παιδική προσπάθεια διαχείρισης της απώλειας που συγκινεί με την ανάγκη για αγάπη, άγγιγμα και προστασία και ξαφνιάζει με τη σκληράδα.

Οι απώλειες είναι αυτές που παίρνουν την παντοδυναμία μας και τη βυθίζουν στην ανησυχία, στη δυσφορία. Και αναδύεται ο αληθινός, ευάλωτος, θνητός εαυτός μας. Που ελάχιστο λόγο έχει στη ζωή και το θάνατο. Γι αυτό πατάμε τις γραμμές στα πεζοδρόμια, τρώμε ολόκληρα τα μπισκότα και ανοιγοκλείνουμε τα βλέφαρα. Γιατί χέστηκε γι αυτά η Ζωή, χέστηκε και ο Θάνατος.

*Ένα ανάλαφρο βιβλίο για την παραλίΝΟΤ. Και θα ρωτήσεις. Γιατί να διαβάσω κάτι τόσο θλιβερό, δυσάρεστο, πένθιμο; Να μην το διαβάσεις. Να μην διαβάσεις γενικώς, δεν είναι απαιτούμενο για κάτι. Το διάβασμα εξάλλου σου δίνει την επιλογή ετερεμπειριών με τον κώλο σου καλυμμένο και αυτό είναι μεγάλο προνόμιο και πολυτέλεια, η ζωή δεν δίνει τέτοιες επιλογές. Προσωπικά νιώθω να με βοηθάει το διάβασμα "δυσάρεστων" βιβλίων. Δυσάρεστων με λόγο, όχι σαδιστικά ούτε μπανιστιρτζίδικα δυσάρεστων. Γιατί νιώθω να κατευθύνουν το μυαλό μου σε μέρη που δεν θα είχα λόγους να οδηγηθώ. Και βρίσκω χρήσιμο το μυαλό μου να κινείται σε όλο το φάσμα εφόσον έχω την πολυτέλεια αυτό να γίνεται χωρίς συναισθηματικό κόστος. Δεν χρειαζόμαστε όμως όλοι τα ίδια πράγματα, δεν έχουμε όλοι τα ίδια ερωτήματα, δεν έχουμε τις ίδιες αντοχές, εμπειρίες, διαθέσεις και είναι αυτό φυσιολογικό. Το συγκεκριμένο λοιπόν δεν είναι ένα βιβλίο για όλους και ας είναι εμπορικό και επιτυχημένο. Να το διαβάσεις αν μπορείς να το σηκώσεις.
Profile Image for Dalia Nourelden.
511 reviews687 followers
March 16, 2023
تقييمى ٢.٥
" لا أحد يسأل أحداً عما فعله في يومه، يوزعون الاوامر بالمهام التي يجب فعلها، ولا يتابعون تنفيذها. لم أجد من يريد أن يعرف كيف سبحت في فجوة الجليد . لم يهمهم سوى أنني مازلت على قيد الحياة والسلام يكفيهما كوننا ننهض صباح كل يوم ، حتى ولو في تثاقل ، دليل على أننا على مايرام "


حين يموت أحد أفراد الأسرة يظل هناك كرسي فارغا على المائدة ،
" كانت تنظر إلى الكرسي وكأن أخي سقط مجدداً.. هو دائما في حالة سقوط بمخيلاتنا..يسقط ثم يسقط..ثم يسقط..أدع الكرسي وشأنه.ولكني أتأمله وكأنه جثة الآن
تظل هناك ذكريات مدفونة في أعماقنا ، تظل هناك دموع حبيسة قلوبنا ونضغط أعيننا بشدة كى نحبسها او نتركهها تنفجر كفيضان . تظل هناك كلمات لم تقال ، مشاعر لم نشعر بها ، ذكريات كنا نتمنى أن نكونها ، يظل هناك حفرة بداخلنا . وحين يكون المتوفي طفل يستمر الأباء في ممارسة حياتهم لكن هناك شيئا ما قد تغير للأبد . هناك جزء قد مات معه.


" هناك اشخاص باسمون دوما حتى لو كان الحزن يملؤهم. فقد باتت ابتسامتهم جزءا لا ينمحي من شخصية وجوههم. لكنني أجد عكس ذلك تماماً في وجهي أمي وأبي .وحتى عندما يبتسمان ، فإنها تكون ابتسامة يشوبها الحزن ، كما لو أن احداً ما يبادر مع كل ابتسامة برسم قوس كآبة عند ركني الفم "

إخوته أيضا سيمارسون طقوس حياتهم لكن سيظل هناك جزء فارغ في قلوبهم ،وخاصة إذا كانوا أطفالا ريما يتخيلون أن يوما ما سيعود أخيهم ." أحيانا ما اتخيل ماتياس وقد عاد سيراً على قدميه، ببشرة ناصعة البياض "


" ماتياس ذهب في نوم أبدي ، وأنه من الآن فصاعدا ، لن يتبقى لنا سوى نوافذ في قلوبنا نطل منها على أخينا الراقد ورائها "

‏ سيشعرون بالذنب إن كانوا قد تمنوا حدوث شئ سئ له ،سيظلون يرون الموت أمامهم ، سيظلون يحاولون ان يفهموا الموت .

" سنظل نكرر مانفعله هذا إلى أن نستوعب موت ماتياس ونفهمه، على الرغم من أننا لا نعرف سبيلاً بعينه إلى ذلك الفهم ".

‏ سيراقبون أبائهم خوفا من أن يتركوهم وربما يتخيلون كيفية موتهم . هناك جزء مكسور في القلب لن يتم ترميمه أبدا . هذا الموت يعذب الاباء ويعذب أيضا باقي اخوته الذين ظلوا على قيد الحياة ، هناك شئ في العلاقة بين الاباء والأبناء ستتغير ولن تعود يوما كما كانت .هناك برودة ستخترق علاقاتهم.

" قد تجدان في كلامي خرفاً .. ولكنني أفتقد أبوي رغم أنني أراهما كل يوم. ربما هو إحساس يشابه إحساسنا بالرغبة في تعلم الأشياء التي لم نتقنها بعد.امي وأبي موجودان، ولكنهما غير موجودين "

" لم يدخل الموت روح ��مي وأبي فحسب، بل صار داخلنا أيضاً "

الرواية كفكرة وموضوع وسلاسة اسلوب ووصف مشاعر حلوة بس هل ده كافي بالنسبالى لأ .
كان فى اوقات قليلة بحس انى تهت مع كلامها ، بحس ان في حاجة مش مظبوطة . والرواية المفروض ان اعمارهم صغيرة وأطفال يعتبر ورغم كده تحس ان تفكيرهم فى أعضاء الجسم والجنس كتير ، ممكن جه بشكل طفولى وفى البداية قلت الأطفال احيانا بيفكروا في اختلافات الجسم وبيبقى عندهم فضول بس كان كتير على الرواية وبدون د��عي . وخاصة أن كان في تصرفات بتحصل بينهم مفروض متحصلش بين الاخوات فالموضوع كان احيانا مثير للاشمئزاز فعلا. ده غير بعض تصرفات الأب مثلا كانت غريبة فعلا . وتفاصيل تانية زى عدم قدرة ياس على التبرز كان موضوع الساعة في الرواية كأن مفيش في حياتنا حاجة غير اننا نتابع الموضوع ده . بجانب أكلها للمخاط طبعا . هل ده هو السبب انها كسبت جايزة البوكر في ٢٠٢٠ 🤔😂
على رأى صديقتى اسماء رواية مقززة 😂 .
" اذا لم تتبرزي ، فلسوف يكون عليهم إحداث فجوة في بطنك ، ليخرج الخراء منها في كيس "

الرواية دى انا وقفت قدامها اكتر من مرة وبفكر اشتريها وبمسكها وبرجع تانى اتردد، واضح ان قلبى كان حاسس وكويس انى مشتريتهاش .لكن تمنيت لو استطيع ان افعل مثلما فعلت ياياس في النهاية .

" إن الحزن لاينمو ، ولكن مساحته داخلك تكبر


مساحة حزني تكبر وتكبر ، وليس بوسع أحد أن يمنعها من الاستمرار في ذلك. كانت في البداية بطول ستة أقدام، واليوم هي بحجم " جالوت" العملاق في الكتاب المقدس"

٩ / ٢ / ٢٠٢٢
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
973 reviews1,201 followers
August 26, 2020
An audacious novel blurring transgressive fiction and a young writer's cathartic reckoning with a family who refused to talk about emotions.

The early chapters were packed with dark absurd comedy, and a disgustingness that combines the silliness of small children shouting "poobum!" as a pretend expletive, with the imaginative skill of the best British creative swearing. Though it does depend how you react to daftness like "When the teacher was telling us about it, I wondered what it would be like to kiss a tash-face like Hitler." (Translating humour so it's actually funny in another language requires a lot of skill and this is such a great choice of words by Michele Hutchison. I don't think I'd ever heard "tash-face" before - despite being a kid in the 80s when moustaches were quite common and increasingly unfashionable - but it sounds like real slang, and has a sharp sound that makes it essentially funny.) I'd heard only about how dark and disturbing The Discomfort of Evening was, and it was a total surprise to find myself laughing at it more than at any other novel I’d read for over a year. The humour, however, peters out. Not immediately after the death of protagonist Jas's older brother - the catalyst for the events of the novel - but not long after. Occasional absurdities continue throughout the book, but never anywhere near the rate at which they began.

Somewhere between a third and half way through the book, I started to get bored. My notes became dominated by repetitive observations that such and such the mother or father did or said was bad parenting, or that something Jas or one of her two siblings did was a bad sign - or just the words "oh dear". Just for some change in the monotony, I wanted to see how these people would react to family therapy (though they were obviously unlikely to try it). But if the reader is bored, that's also the writing being effective: it emphasises how monotonous experiences like this are to live for years on end- this is why Jas constantly dreams of escaping to "the other side" (of a local bridge, to the outside, less stultifying world).

Accumulated, the various incidents of mistreatment of animals, and children's dubious sexual explorations started to feel, tonally, just like those in numerous other literary novels and short stories, simply at a higher concentration. In The Discomfort of Evening they are quite frequent, whereas in lots of books there are only a couple of scenes like this (e.g. in The Remainder, from last year's International Booker long/shortlist, Felipe killing the parrot).

However, there was a difference in the recognition of how emotions and events reverberate in such complex ways, and of how incidents that don't arise from what would be analysed as abusive mindsets in adults can have the effects on children of sexual abuse. (The only novel I can think of that has shown the latter with much clarity is Portnoy's Complaint.) it's something that only seems to have started to be understood by many people in the last decade, with increasing attention to children's bodily boundaries being talked about on parenting forums. Before that one had to put the pieces together oneself, if lucky enough to be able to think in those terms as a kid. The 2020 longlist and then shortlist show this contrast, between the sort of individual clearly recognisable as an abuser, Norma's hideously insidious stepfather Pepe in Hurricane Seasaon, and the ambiguity from adult viewpoints of Jas's father trying to treat a child's constipation with soap in The Discomfort of Evening. Jas' intrusive thoughts and acting out - perpetuating an abuse cycle with other kids - in the following weeks and months demonstrate how its effects are also those of abuse. (Hurricane Season is more about the mental effects, whilst the Dutch novel concentrates on how they manifest in physical actions.)

The Discomfort of Evening strikes me as the work of a writer in their twenties processing and creating from childhood experience, and in particular practising 'using their words' (to near-virtuoso heights) after life in a family which was bad at talking and understanding about feelings. As someone who went over a lot of childhood stuff in their late twenties, but with meticulous attention to the reality of what was remembered as events and what felt inwardly, I am simultaneously fascinated to see where the imagination can go if one uses the felt sense as a creative springboard without boundaries - as Rijneveld deliberately and bravely refuses to say where fact ends and fiction begins in this novel - yet I also felt a certain amount of ennui. For years, I was interested in reading and reviewing fiction that involved digging up old experiences. But these days I am more interested in fiction about the wider world and with a larger historical or political context.

This sense of processing experience was most noticeable to me via a shared habit, one I've done a lot in emails to friends. Rijneveld begins a scene, and frequently, after an early utterance or development, there is a digression into some background or tangentially related family anecdote, which in the case of the novel often goes on for pages. Once the scene in the book's present started again, I often had to look back before the digression to find the last thing that was said in it. I am familiar with a feeling of surfacing after writing something like that of my own for several paragraphs. I had often thought that it's an unsuitable tic for the highest-level writing (like literary fiction from a publisher like Faber), and I'd be interested to know about how the editing was done for this book and how others see this approach.

There are many routine, primarily physical, experiences described here which are fascinating to see described the first few times in life one reads about them, but which become dulled by repetition, e.g. how the kids take apart sandwich cream biscuits to eat them. Through my twenties I noticed the gradual emergence of forum threads and other sites where people talked nostalgically about childhood sweets, and it was a revelation to me to see this mostly private experience (I was an only child who didn't like most of the other kids at my school) put into words. It used to be thrilling to read someone else actually talking about this, as if old neurons were being woken up, like seeing the packaging for some once-favourite food you thought you'd never set eyes on again. These things are now commonplace on the internet in my 40s. The novel makes me wonder if it's inherently always exciting when you are younger, and if it is simply age which makes them duller to talk and read about.

This blend of familiarity and daring transgressive creativity struck me over and over again even whilst I found some of the novel tedious. This weird world of a claustrophobic, provincial family much like the author's own was reminiscent of Alan Bennett (a less-fictionalised, less troubled equivalent; likewise a writer of digressions in which almost everything seems to remind him of an old family anecdote) and Bruno Schulz (on the more obviously fantastical side). And Rijneveld has started out in a very different world from these two, in which media and social media demand to know more about a writer's life, and where truth ends and fiction begins, than ever before. Rijneveld is a master of extraordinary and original metaphors. I tend to judge writers on their metaphors, and for me the numerous examples of these absolutely justify Rijneveld's place on the shortlist
- You can see the blisters on the inside. They’re just like the air cushions in the envelopes Dad sent off vials of bull sperm in, which sometimes stood, lukewarm, among the breakfast things on the table.
- He hasn’t got anything else to do and sits in his smoking chair all day like a stuffed heron, not saying anything until he can turn us into his prey. Herons love moles.
- Look, I don’t know what love is, but I do know it makes you jump high, that it makes you able to swim more lengths, that it makes you visible.

Not for the first time when writing a review, I regret not having read Kathy Acker - as one of the great transgressive writers, and one who had a lot to say about physicality and power in unexpected ways, I wonder if there would be a fruitful comparison and contrast here. Jas' world is confined in many ways - the children are not allowed to go to many places beyond the farm and life is morally constrained by the values of a strict Protestant denomination, meaning that the children often sound and think younger than average kids their age these days - but increasing transgression takes place within these confines, as the children act out doing cruel or merely strange things to animals and one another. What may have only been lurking silently in imagination in the real world, or been bubbling under in the id and found its way to the surface during the writing process, takes place physically in the novel. As appropriately for a novel set on a farm it's very physical and concrete in much of what happens. Having lived next door to a farm, the physical practicality, the sublimation of emotion into physical activity, the scruffiness and flowchart-like chaining of events in the novel feel absolutely integral to and a product of its agricultural setting. It's hard to put into words just how…farmy it is. It seems so obvious that this is one of the ways that a fucked-up family with a farm would be. The novel feels incredibly realistic on a psychic level even in scenes that are most likely fictional or exaggerated. Perhaps farms as a setting, especially pastoral or mixed farms, lend themselves to transgressive weirdness in fiction, because there are more than just humans about and one has to think about bodily functions, mess and death. My benchmark for transgressive/shocking fiction is an extreme 1960s Russian novel, The Sublimes by Yuri Mamleyev - against which I measure every other book I read that's considered shocking. The Discomfort of Evening is less gratuitous, has more evident artistry and humanity - yet there are similarities, many of which seem to stem from the way the farm environment puts human characters in closer contact, mental and physical, with aspects of life that the urban office worker can ignore much of the time and which take up less headspace.

It was surprising - but also a testament to this novel as art - that it isn't more about gender; currently it is made to seem as if any writer with any sort of gender variance is expected to make that the focal point of their work. Yet of course this has not always had to be the case; most of Jan Morris' work has focused on other topics. As someone who would probably be describing themselves as non-binary if twenty-odd today, I thought I could see a more subtle consideration of it; the protagonist has a unisex-sounding name, seems to subtly not feel quite like the girls or the boys, not fitting the system of it in a way that is barely verbalised, and to be trying on sexual roles. (I was reminded of the time at school when I deliberately chose a speech by Olivia from Twelfth Night instead of Viola, as a mixture of trying to demonstrate being in the more acceptable role, and to throw people off the scent, but wouldn't have been able to articulate it that way until several years later).

Right through the novel one can wonder how much was and was not true, but the very end of the book is a writerly coup, a triumph that makes one look differently at all of the rest of it in that respect - and also the ultimate expression of the claustrophobic nature of the household and of how rebellion, especially in teens and twenties, is too often shaped by that which one is reacting against. Yet to analyse it as such seems to take something away from it: instead it seemed to belong framed, like a painting, as the non-verbal culmination to all these words.

(Read March 2020; review written March & May 2020)
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156 reviews79 followers
May 16, 2022
The Discomfort of Evening was a discomforting read, to say the least. It explores the grief and coping of a reformist dairy farmer family after the sudden death of their eldest son. There are the parents who don't express grief in any conventional manner. Hence, grief manifests itself as an eating disorder and suicidal tendencies in the mother, and a lack of temper in the father. Then there are the younger siblings, Obbe, the adolescent brother, and Jas and Hanna, the younger sisters. The siblings, sometimes together and sometimes separately, wade through adolescence and explore their newfound sexuality while dealing with parental neglect and the looming absence of the dead brother. To make matters worse, their farm gets hit by a plague of foot and mouth disease that brings about their financial ruin. The theme is difficult and tragic and it is enough to make for a tough reading experience. That is increased by a hundredfold when every other chapter is peppered with graphic paragraphs on excrement, rot, worms, animal abuse, or incest. I cannot quite appreciate reading a book when I'm grossed out half of the time. And the other half is bloody fantastic. The kids being perceptive about their parents, their dreaming and scheming about leaving home for a better future, the ruminations on death, even the odd mentions of Hitler, are all so beautifully written. Actually, the whole book is beautifully written, and that makes me wonder why it was necessary to obsess over poop so much to make the point. Maybe the way these adolescents explore their sexuality here has realism behind it, but the borderline abuse makes it hard to digest. I guess the raw portrayal of life is what drew in the International Booker committee two years back, but to me, it will be a book that I wish to forget but most likely will not anytime soon.
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