The idea that words and wishes have a material impact on the world is something we try to disbelieve as adults. We try to become logical and to understand the proper structures of cause and effect, to work towards known outcomes in a rational way. But still, evidence abounds that we do not fully credit the reality of reasonableness. Whether it’s New-Age-adjacent crazes such as The Secret, which places its faith in “laws of attraction”, or just that old perennial, prayer, we can’t quite let go of the suspicion that our inner and outer expressions hold some power which is not explicable.
For children, of course, this belief is much more intuitive. Magical thinking causes a child to perceive, as Freud had it, that “it is raining because I am sad”. A child, who is in reality at the height of their own powerlessness, and who may even confront their own inefficacy with great frustration on a daily basis, simultaneously feels omnipotent.
This childish solipsism is one of the unsettling concepts explored with majestic dread by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld in The Discomfort of Evening. First published in 2018 in the Netherlands, where it caused a sensation, it has now been translated into English by Michele Hutchinson and is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Sly, surprising, gently chaotic, it’s the most singular and strident debut I’ve read in a long time.
Rijneveld, who uses the pronoun “they”, grew up on a farm in North Brabant, and still works once a week on a dairy farm. As a toddler, their elder brother was killed by a bus on the walk to school. In a recent interview in Dazed, they said “My father hasn’t read [the novel]. My mother has. I did have to tell them that they weren’t the parents in the novel. The most difficult thing was my brother. My parents never talked about their loss, so it was hard for them that their own child had started to talk about it.”
The Discomfort of Evening is narrated by Jas, a ten-year-old girl living on a farm in a religious family. Jas, fearing that her rabbit will be killed soon, wishes that her brother Matthies be taken instead. When he dies in a skating accident, Jas’s relationship to reality, and to her increasingly unstable family, begins to disintegrate and mutate. The anger of her father, the muddled despair of her unwell mother and the confusion of her siblings simmer disquietly. Jas begins to engage in a series of escalating, troubled rituals and experiments in an attempt to counter the terrible grief submerging herself and her surroundings.
Jas’s language is clean and plain, convincingly childlike, but strikingly poetic – even (or especially) when it is describing the mucky corporeality of rural life. The warts on a toad are like capers, the glands prone to ooze sour oil just like the edible green buds. The smells and excretions of the animals and the banal grotesquery of her interactions with them mount up to portray life as an unlovely thing. Matthies, in death, is pristine and beautiful, untouched even by conversation:
Suddenly I remember what the vet said when he fished my brother out of the water with Evertsen: “When people have hypothermia, you have to handle them like porcelain. The smallest touch could be deadly.” 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.
It isn’t a pleasant book to read. Jas’s chronic constipation is relayed in repet- itive detail, the resultant probing and excavation mirrored later in her interference with one of the farm’s cows, as she penetrates the animal’s orifices with detached interest. Sex acts between children are drawn with queasy ambivalence, characterised both by innocence and a desire for revenge or penance. Though tender, the novel resists narrative redemption, but provides its own kind of consolation through artistry and originality.
The singularity of a child’s perception allows acts of imagination an adult can’t access. This is why we romanticise childhood as an experience of unique internal freedom, a sacred realm we long always to return to for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Rijneveld’s novel is to expose the underside of that precious quality.
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 Discomfort of Evening
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe