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.
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.
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.
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.