When English writer Max Porter tweaked Emily Dickinson’s words about hope into a reflection on bereavement for his debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, his core offering was that grief could be many things – “perching in the soul, light and dark, unfixed, moving, proportioned to the life.” In Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel, The Discomfort of Evening, which has made the 29-year-old author the youngest and the first Dutch writer to win the 2020 Booker International Prize, grief is the hollow of a brother’s body in the middle of the mattress.
“It’s the shape left by death and whichever way I turn it or flip it over, the hollow stays a hollow that I try not to end up in,” writes the novel’s 10-year-old narrator, Jas, while trying to come to terms with the loss of Matthies, the oldest of four siblings, who dies in a skating accident a day before Christmas early in the novel.
Grief is his milk teeth, dried-up and with blood on them, in a little wooden pot on the windowsill on the farm where the Reformed farming family lives in the rural Netherlands. It is the empty place at the dining table, with a seat and chair-back that Matthies can no longer casually set his weight against.
For those who find themselves snowed under it, grief is the constant, soul-crushing presence of an absence. Like Porter’s mournful widower, Matthies’ devoutly religious parents and his three siblings – Jas, Obbe and Hanna – find their grief to be a long-term project and “the fabric of selfhood”.
“When someone you love dies, and you are not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time,” states the narrator in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany about the terrifying turn the life of the 11-year-old eponymous character takes after he hits a foul ball and kills his best friend’s mother while playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire.
Matthies’s family loses him in pieces, too, one image at a time. For them, the struggle remains not to let their images of Matthies fade away, even though they are assailed by his memory. Jas says at some point in the novel:
“There isn’t a photo of him anywhere in the house…I try to picture him every evening like an important history test, to learn his features off by heart – just like I learned the slogan ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ which I repeat constantly, especially at grown-up parties to show off what I’ve learned – afraid of the moment other boys might get into my head and let my brother slip out from between them...”
She explains why she has stopped taking off her coat, a grubby red anorak, “her coat of anxiety”, in which she keeps pocketing keepsakes, like toads and broken toy cows: “My red coat is fading, just like my image of Matthies,” runs her worry.
That is just one. There are many: “Dad says children can’t have worries because they only come when you have to plough and grub your own fields, even though I keep discovering more and more worries of my own and they keep me awake at night. They seem to be growing.”
As the memory of Matthies slowly disappears from their life (“all this time we’ve been so careful with Matthies that we don’t even talk about him, so that he can’t break into pieces inside our heads”), the parents and the children find themselves defeated by the sucker-punch of loss, whirling in the whorls of the great sink-holes of melancholy.
Each of them goes on to deal with it in their own way. The parents remain completely paralysed with grief, oblivious to the fact that their three children, devoid of comfort and care, are gradually going off the rails, drifting apart not just from them but also from each other, travelling more and more inside themselves.
The kids invent their own worlds, discover sexuality and act out dangerous rituals, involving sexual abuse and violence to animals, to cope with grief. Rijneveld quotes Flemish writer and poet Maurice Gilliams (1900-1982) in the epigraph (“restlessness gives wings to imagination”).
Jas, the young and restless narrator, is able to imagine things that remind the readers of the “introverted and oversensitive individualism” of Gilliams’s own writing, which circled around the themes of dream, imagination and the inner experience. Jas breathes in Dad’s smoke so that “his cares would become mine”.
When she looks at him, she begins to feel “little stabs” inside her chest. She stops thinking about the Discman she once wanted so much: “My parents’ loss is much worse – you can’t save up for a new son.” She sees the sadness trickling out of her father, “like the runny manure and the blood from the dead cows that flow between the ridges of the tiles and end up in the drain, mixing with the milk from the cooling tank.”
The novel heaves with her concerns for and fears about her parents whom she sees getting disintegrated by sadness.
We’re slowly floating away from Mum and Dad on a lily-pad instead of the other way around. Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.
She sees her parents every day and yet she misses them: “Mum and Dad are there, but at the same time they aren’t.” Concerned with the erosion of intimacy in their lives after the tragedy, she keeps goading the toads to mate to begin the mating season that might encourage them. Diminished by the tragedy, her parents seem to her “like the candle stubs in our lanterns” and all she would do is to use some spit to put them out.
Just like the Old Testament, her parents keep “repeating their words, behaviour, patterns and rituals, even if we, their followers, are moving further and further away from them”.
In a family where the Bible guides every action and scriptures are recited often, the tragedy also leads to some questioning of the faith: “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.” When their farm is struck by foot-and-mouth and their cows have to be culled, she wonders: “Just like the weather, God can never get it right. If a swan is rescued somewhere in the village, in a different place a parishioner dies.”
Reflecting on the last pile of cow shit that she will see for a while, she is seized by the emptiness that is going to mark her family:
Just like the sound of the early morning mooing, the feed concentrate mixers, the milk tank’s cooling system turning on, the cooing of the wood pigeons attracted by the corn feed that build nests in the rafters of the barn, everything will ultimately fade into something we only recall on birthdays or when we can’t get to sleep at night, and everything will be empty: the cows’ stalls, the cheese shed, the feed silos, our hearts.
At some other point in the novel, she says that she has learned that the heavens are not a wishing-well but “a mass grave”.
Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that. That was why I was afraid on some days that he would fall and end up in someone else’s garden, and that we wouldn’t notice.
Elsewhere, she states: “Matthies will never come back, just like Jesus will never descend on a cloud.”
In the great tradition of ontluisterend realisme (shocking realism) in the Dutch literature (think Turkish Delights by Jan Wolkers; a few lines from one of his poems in the epigraph refer to chords being a “clothesline of grief”) with its characteristic sexual candour, The Discomfort of Evening has an unflinching gaze on sexuality, religion and “the filth of existence,” as Rijneveld, who refuses to identify with either sex and prefers the non-binary pronoun they, told the Booker Prize Foundation.
It is about the sacred and the profane, about death and desire, sadness and humour. Rendered into English by Michele Hutchison, it does to the reader everything it intends to do, through its relentless “raw, visceral and surreal” images and abject similes, giving the reader a “radical reading experience”.
In a novel so preoccupied with the way death of a loved one nibbles away at the living, the gloom that hangs heavy is contrasted with the lightness of irreverent humour – a vein runs through the novel.
“I wanted to set darkness against light,” Rijneveld told Dazed in an interview. “A book can’t only be about the darkness.”
“Jas is funny and has great ideas,” Rijneveld said. “She learns about the Second World War at school so, when her mum stops eating, Jas thinks it is because her mum’s giving her food to Jewish people who are hiding in the basement from the Nazis.”
“Children have great minds,” Rijneveld said.
There are moments in the novel that leave you quietly chuckling at the wit and insouciance of the narrator. Early in the novel, she finds the “slippery thumbs” of her mother pressing into her eyes and is afraid that if she’d press too hard, her eyeballs would “plop into my skull like marbles”.
She knows what her mother would say: “That’s what happens when your eyes are always roaming and you never keep them still like a true believer, gazing up at God as though the heavens might break open at any moment.” Jas would counter thus: “But the heavens here only broke open for a snowstorm – nothing to keep staring at like an idiot.”
The novel, which became a sensation when it first appeared in Dutch in 2018, draws on the author’s rural upbringing (in the Dutch province of North Brabant) and the loss of their brother in a car accident while he was on his way to school when Rijneveld was three years old. Even today, once every week, the author works on her dairy farm outside of Utrecht, clearing shit from the manure channels in a cowshed.
Like Jas, Rijneveld, too, grew up in a strictly religious family.
“I grew up with a threatening, cruel god,” the author told Dazed. “And it was clear that this God could give, and that he could take, and suddenly he took away my brother.”
“As a child, I was always really scared of god, but it was a kind of fear that was paired with fascination,” the author said. “I went to church a lot, but it’s difficult to grow up with that kind of cruel god.”
“I felt like god was present – like he lived in the loft of our farm, and Mum would take him up a dish of crumbs and milk and everything, like a stray cat,” the author said.
If you see cruelty in the novel, Rijneveld believes it’s necessary “because it’s part of how young people search for meaning and learn about life.”
Interestingly, Rijneveld owes their love of dark stories to Harry Potter. “When I was 12 I read the first Harry Potter book and I thought it was beautiful,” the author, who is working on a second novel, narrated from the perspective of a boy just a little older than Jas, told Dazed. “I wanted to borrow it from the library but my parents did not want me reading about wizards, so I typed out the whole book on a computer because I wanted to keep it.”
Before Rijneveld, only two Dutch writers were nominated for the prize and they are the author’s two great heroes: Tommy Wieringa (2019) and Harry Mulisch (2007).
It is the first time that Faber, their publisher, has published a new Dutch novel since 2001. The Discomfort of Evening, thematically, lies in the same territory as Rijneveld’s previous two poetry collections: Kalfsvlies (“Calf Caul”, 2016), which earned them the C Buddingh’ Prize, and Fantoommerrie (‘Phantom Mare, 2019) – compelling architecture of metaphors and similes and uncomfortable images on the themes of grief and gender.
Sarah Timmer Harvey, who has translated Rijneveld’s poems into English, writes in the translator’s note:
Opening with the sudden death of a sibling, the poems in Kalfsvlies compulsively dissect the creatures, objects and rituals populating the unnamed narrator’s consciousness to expose the grief and estrangement rupturing their family. At the root of the inquiry is the narrator’s uneasiness with their rural religious upbringing and profound struggle to make sense of gender and sexuality in a repressed milieu.
Grief Eaters’ and ‘New Year’s Eve’ are two poems in which Rijneveld explores gender identity in the context of the parent-child relationship. ‘Grief Eaters’ is a remarkably intimate reflection of an adolescent’s fraught attempts to fit their father’s ideal – and the inevitable disappointment when both parent and child fail to meet expectations. ‘New Year’s Eve’ is the final poem in Kalfsvlies and in it, we see the young narrator’s first real bid for freedom from their past, tentatively introducing their male identity at a party in the city and acknowledging the potential for growth and transformation. Both poems showcase the intense vulnerability and juvenescence that make Marieke Lucas Rijneveld one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Dutch literature.
Like the many-edged grief in The Discomfort of Evening, discomfort, too, plays out at many levels – discomfort with death and darkness, as well as with identity, sexuality or religion. But discomfort is good because it reveals us.
“In discomfort, we are real,” says a pastor in the novel. Loss may corrode us, but it also redeems us. As Jas says: “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.”
This article first appeared in The Punch Magazine.