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2 September 2020

Death in the countryside

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the youngest winner of the International Booker Prize, discusses grief and memory. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

People are quite afraid of their feelings,” says Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. “We live in a society where you have to pretend that everything’s OK, but sometimes that’s not how you feel.”

The Dutch author (who prefers to use the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) is now being asked how they feel an awful lot. Rijneveld and translator Michele Hutchison are the winners of this year’s International Booker Prize for The Discomfort of Evening, which was published in the UK in March, following its success as a bestseller in the Netherlands.

At 29, Rijneveld is the youngest author to win the prize, the first debut novelist and the first Dutch author. On hearing the news, they said, in their typical idiomatic style: “I am as proud as a cow with seven udders.”

On the day following the announcement, Rijneveld and Hutchison sat side by side at their publisher’s office in Amsterdam, a brightly coloured bookshelf towering over them. Rijneveld wore a grey suit, white shirt and tie, their shoulder-length blond hair obstructing some of their face.

Hutchison said she first came across Rijneveld at a poetry reading in 2018, where she was struck by their voice, which rings out “like a bell”. She was drawn to the book’s “fresh view of the world” and to Rijneveld’s poetic tone. Hutchison also warmed to the novel’s familiar rural setting; she grew up in Lincolnshire, “which looks like the Dutch countryside: it’s got tulips and windmills”.

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The Discomfort of Evening is a dark and visceral novel full of precise descriptions and unnerving frankness. It follows ten-year-old Jas and her family, who are strict Reformed Christians and live and work on a dairy farm. Jas’s experience of the natural world is inseparable from her home life. She observes warts on toads and declares them “just like capers”, and fears her pet rabbit Dieuwertje will end up “in a layer of butter in the big casserole dish on the gas stove”.

Rijneveld grew up in a similar environment, on their family’s farm in the village of Nieuwendijk, in the south of the Netherlands. They left home at 19 and now live in Utrecht, spending most of their time writing, and, once a week, mucking out cows on a farm just outside the city – a routine they don’t plan on changing because they’ve won the International Booker Prize.

“I like to get a change from sitting at my desk,” Rijneveld said, through an interpreter. “I think it’s really good to do something physical – it’s essential, actually – it helps me think and reflect.”

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Spending time in both the city and the countryside brings out different sides of Rijneveld’s character and is imperative to their creativity. “I need the city, because I need the noise and the sound there. But the countryside keeps me grounded; it’s a different kind of awareness, where I find peace and calm. I need both the sound and the silence.”

As a child growing up in a small village, Rijneveld had “freedom”. “I was able to play outside, I could climb trees, I was building huts… all of that’s great when you’re a kid.”

Children who grow up in the countryside, around so many animals, are also aware of death at an earlier age than their urban counterparts.

Rijneveld experienced this feature of rural life early: they were three when their 12-year-old brother died after he was knocked over by a bus on his way to school. “At that age, I had only a physical memory of it – a memory of the body as opposed to the memory you have in your mind. You know the story but you can’t really express it in words.”

After their brother’s death, Rijneveld became scared of getting sick. “I was afraid of things to do with the body, I became very, very anxious”.

In The Discomfort of Evening, Jas’s brother, 12-year-old Matthies, dies in a tragic accident and the family’s grief propels them into an emotional neglect of one another. Jas’s mother stops eating; her father spends more time with his cows; Jas, like Rijneveld, becomes fearful of sickness, and with her siblings, begins a strange series of rituals. She sticks a pin into her navel and leaves it there; she keeps two toads in a bucket and encourages them to mate – if they do, she thinks, her parents will too, and that will make them happy. She believes she is making bargains with God, who will bring her brother back.

These scenes, the apex of which comprises animal abuse and sex acts between children, are grossly uncomfortable to read. But, Rijneveld said, “I’m not sure that they’re such unusual rituals.” The experiments “are something that’s almost normal in the countryside. Children are interested in death, they’re very curious. It’s not something you can imagine in the same way at all in the city. On a farm, people see nature, animals and people differently.”

When foot and mouth disease strikes the farm and the slaughtering of cows begins, Jas feels a new tension in the air. “If you don’t learn how to cope when a person has died,” said Rijneveld, “then every animal that dies is something that’s very, very painful for you.”

Rijneveld has said that their mother has read their novel but finds it difficult to understand that it is fiction and not wholly the family’s truth. They are unsure whether their father has read it. “I think we can be afraid of emotions,” they said.

“There’s a sense that they may be unbearable. As a child, you have to learn how to deal with your feelings. Lots of people don’t.”