Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, why not share this newsletter with a friend?
It would have been difficult to miss Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening this year. The winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2020, it feels as though it’s been read and reviewed by just about everyone. As Barbara den Ouden from the Dutch Foundation for Literature told me over the phone, she can’t remember the last time a book from the Netherlands achieved this level of international success. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
The Discomfort of Evening is Rijneveld’s debut novel. It took them six years to complete and draws on the author’s rural upbringing, as well as the experience of losing their brother at a young age, to tell the story of a devout farming family as they grieve the loss of their son, Matthies.
The novel is narrated by Jas, Matthies’ ten-year-old sister whose naivety about death is endearing and heart-breaking in equal measure. She worries, for example, that Matthies won’t be able to pay his library fines in heaven because he didn’t have any cash on him when he died.
As Jas’ parents become consumed by grief, their devotion begins to manifest itself in a series of impossibly strict rules and cruel punishments enforced to keep both children and livestock in check. While Jas’s mother experiences a psychotic episode, her father’s rules become increasingly arbitrary. “There’s never any warning that we’re about to pray or that Dad’s going to say grace, so you just have to sense it.”
Meanwhile Jas and her siblings enter puberty, exploring—and abusing—their own bodies and playing wicked games with the animals on their farm. Rijneveld’s decision to tell their story from the perspective of a ten-year-old is brave, and it pays off. In one particularly graphic scene, Jas pushes a drawing pin through her belly button after her teacher asks where in the world her students would most like to go. When one girl shouts “Canada,” the teacher sticks a pin in the map on the classroom wall. Later that day, Jas copies her teacher by mutilating her own stomach.
“‘One day I’d like to go to myself,’ I say quietly, pushing the pin into the soft flesh of my navel. I bite my lip so as not to make a sound, and a trickle of blood runs down to the elastic of my pants and soaks into the fabric. I daren’t take out the pin, afraid blood will gush out everywhere, and everyone in the house will know that I don’t want to go to God but to myself.”
Linguistically rich, The Discomfort of Evening is teeming with bold, penetrating similes, each one more revolting than the last. Diarrhoea reminds Jas of the caramel sauce her granny used to pour on her rice pudding; her sister’s tongue feels like a leftover steak that has been heated in the microwave; a vagina looks like slug that’s been cut open.
But for all of its unsettling imagery, of which there’s certainly no shortage, The Discomfort of Evening is a surprisingly funny novel. Jas’ naivety leads to all sorts of sweet observations and wrongly drawn conclusions. “I could hardly imagine a [church] service without my dad being there,” ponders Jas. “I sometimes ask myself what would become of God without my father.”
At 282-pages The Discomfort of Evening is a short novel. But it’s by no means a quick read. It took me handful of sittings to get through, but I’m glad I stuck with it: it’s a book that’s going to stay with me for a long time.
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber, 2020)
More books by Dutch authors
Here’s a list of other recommendations I received this week:
Roxy by Esther Gerritsen, tr. Michele Hutchison
Gliding Flight by Anne-Gine Goemans, tr. Nancy Forest-Flier
Taxi: Stories from the Back Seat by Aimée de Jongh
Giovanna’s Navel by Ernest van der Kwast, tr. Laura Vroomen
Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett
The Dutch Maiden by Marente de Moor, tr. David Doherty
Sleepless Night by Margriet de Moor, tr. David Doherty
Grand Hotel Europa by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, tr. Michele Hutchison
The Consequences by Niña Weijers, tr. Hester Velmans
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa, tr. Sam Garrett
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Barbara den Ouden from the Dutch Foundation for Literature for her recommendations for this issue. If you think someone you know would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!