This writer and this narrator are to be trusted when they stay close to the realities of life on a dairy farm. It’s easy to believe that Jas hates taking a beaker of syrup and buttermilk to school (her classmates, lucky enough to have ‘real drinking yoghurt’ in a box, tell her it stinks), that her duvet cover smells of liquid manure if the wind direction changed while it was hanging on the line, that skating on the frozen surface of the manure ditch behind the cowsheds isn’t much fun, what with the blades of your skates turning light brown if you score into the ice. Rijneveld isn’t satisfied with such truthful miseries, and all the attempts to soar into the upper air of pathology, provocation and metaphorical overload leave mere readers behind.
Jas’s imagination helps her to create haphazard outlets in times of great distress. She tries to force two toads to breed, believing that if they achieve this intimacy then so too will her alienated parents. She imagines a Jewish family hidden beneath the floorboards as a way to explain her mother’s inability to nourish Jas and her siblings – she is simply busy with the hidden family, diverting her care to them instead of her own children. She tries to imagine her way out of devastation, but cannot transcend the demoralising, competing griefs that merge beneath one roof.
The magical thinking of this child produces a truly haunting and savage loneliness, communicated by Rijneveld with an agile intensity I have rarely encountered.
The book finishes with a wrenching twist, however this is not a novel driven by plot, but one of character and form. Its formal power is extraordinary – Rijneveld choreographs a baroque layering of horror that lands somewhere between late Hardy and Georges Bataille. The overall effect is ghastly, but not gratuitous. There are no dates in the novel. Small clues place it around the turn of the millennium, but The Discomfort of Evening feels, without question, like a book that was written for today. In this age of the Anthropocene, as children find themselves commodified into conscience-salving beacons of hope, Rijneveld gives us something less digestible: a vision of a childhood both broken and hopeless – a parable to shake us from sentiment.
Ultimately, the novel will find both admirers and detractors for its poetic, mannered language, realistic bleakness and descent into surreal darkness. The book doesn’t quite keep the promise of its compelling first part, where Rijneveld and Hutchison immerse us in Jas’s world with detailed observations: a dried-up raisin found under a cabinet, skin formed on warm milk. As the tragedies pile up and the narration intensifies, the fascinating characters and themes sometimes lose their immediacy amid dense prose.
Rijneveld really doesn’t hold back with all this, poking sticky fingers into nasty places to stir up uneasy memories of prepubescent explorations of sexuality and mortality. The novel evokes a general curiosity and bewilderment with the adult world, here given two supercharged shots in the backside by the unspeakable (in all senses) tragedy of the brother’s death and the pressure of extreme religious beliefs. Translated by Michele Hutchison, Rijneveld’s writing is raw and impassive, though often grotesquely vivid in its descriptions.
Despite some issues, The Discomfort of Evening is a strong debut. Rijneveld’s poetic prose, eloquently translated by Michele Hutchison, clashes and rattles against the horrors it describes, a constant fight between terror and beauty. It is a novel that does its best to make sure you won’t forget it anytime soon. Something I know my mother will absolutely never read.
The electricity in this book comes from the use of that blank narrative style to deliver a sort of Grand Guignol grotesquerie. Everyone and everything suffers in this book, usually in a vicious way. A hamster is slowly drowned. A sister is almost suffocated. Jas’s father forces soap up her “bumhole” to cure her constipation. All this could read like a satire on the religious notion that suffering ennobles us, which inspires the novel’s title (“According to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real”), if it wasn’t done with such relish. In the end it reads more like a young writer’s weakness for the ersatz glamour of the deeply bleak and is heavy on the similes.
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A book this unvarnished has noticeable flaws. Aspects of Jas’s fixation on the physical can be violent, concerning and unpleasant to read. Lovelessness constantly swims unhappily to the surface; religious tropes abound, from the plague of foot-and-mouth disease to small, nasty sacrifices re-enacting the biggest loss of all — Matthies. There is a horrific sexual violation that appears to have no consequences. One begins to be anxious for any animal that crosses the children’s path. Yet there is a bold beauty to the book, which for all its modernity seems to be set in a different age of automatic religious belief.