How do you deal with grief? It’s a question that many people have asked themselves (and that I’ve written about before), but have struggled to find the answer to. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Dutch author who identifies as non-binary, explored this theme in their debut novel The Discomfort of Evening, in which they deal with the terrible loss of a young girl who loses her brother. The novel was awarded the International Booker Prize last year, but it can hardly be called fun. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening is about ten-year-old Jas (the Dutch word for coat), who decides not to take off her coat anymore after her brother dies in a skating accident. She lives on a strict religious farm with her parents, who are so grief stricken that they don’t talk about what happened, nor look after their surviving children anymore. Therefore, Jas and her siblings are forced to deal with their loss in their own ways, which becomes more gruesome with every page because there’s nobody who tells them to stop.
The Discomfort of Evening is about death, grief, religion, growing up, bodily functions, obsession, neglect, and identity, all of which taking place at a small farm in the Netherlands. The most interesting part is that it is all written from the point of view of a young girl, who tells her story in a factual, sober way. While she is clearly intelligent and has a lively imagination, it becomes clear from the beginning that she does not fully understand what is going on. Jas uses many metaphors in her descriptions, which could easily have felt unrealistic or pretentious, but as they are all related to the small world she’s familiar with (such as animals, religion, and the things Jas learns at school) they make sense. The juxtaposition of her wise words and her failure to fully grasp their meaning makes this novel so intriguing.
Jas is convinced she is to blame for her brother’s death; she prayed that her pet rabbit would be saved, and that God would take her brother instead. Because of this, and her pastor’s words, “in discomfort we are real”, she punishes herself continuously, and is determined not to let go of the grief she’s feeling. For instance, she sticks a drawing pin in her belly button, and refuses to take off her coat, which serves as a sort of shell to protect her insides from the outside world. She fills its pockets with knick-knacks that remind her of her brother, weighing her down, and she replenishes her storage of tears with salty food, such as snot and popcorn. But the most disgusting part, which I will not describe in detail, is that she refuses to go to the bathroom, and which her father eventually tries to solve.
This is the only time her father helps her; both her parents have lost all interest in her. Her father goes out a lot, and only returns at the end of the day, angry and promising that he will leave soon. Her mother ceases to be a person altogether, refusing to eat and neglecting her chores. This is why, slowly but surely, Jas and her siblings lose all sense of reality, and they have no idea how to deal with both their grief and their looming puberty – resulting in morbid actions. Jas becomes convinced that she will die if she takes off her coat, and the more she’s hiding inside her coat, the more claustrophobic the novel becomes.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading this novel; it is too uncomfortable to call it that. However, I did admire the writing style and the gradually escalating events. While doing my research for this novel, I found out that Rijneveld based The Discomfort of Evening on their own past, for they used to live on a farm (and still work there one day a week) and lost a brother at a very young age. This makes it all the more interesting to me, because it makes Jas and her overly wise observations feel more realistic. What also helps, I think, is that Rijneveld is exactly the same age as me, and their references to typically Dutch things such as flippos, Sinterklaas, and Hitzone CDs made me identify with the protagonist – up to a point, fortunately.
The Discomfort of Evening won the International Booker Prize last year, and I can understand why. The plot is fairly straightforward, but the way the story is written, with its plethora of odd metaphors, narrated by a naive, ignorant little girl living on a farm, trying to find out how to deal with life after the death of her brother but getting completely lost along the way, sure is memorable. This is a brutal, oppressive novel, and I know that some people put it down halfway through, but I am glad I managed to finish it. It made me ask myself the question of what I would do if I were faced with the same things as Jas, but I’m afraid I have no idea. That’s because, no matter how much you think about it, grief is such an overwhelming emotion that nobody knows quite how to deal with it.
How would you deal with loss? What did you think of The Discomfort of Evening? Which books deal with similar themes? Please let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings!