The Discomfort of Evening is entirely narrated by an intelligent, astutely observant 12-year-old girl named Jas Mulder who shares a birthday with Adolf Hitler and talks to her pets. She stopped taking her coat off at the age of ten and began to store a myriad of items in its pockets to “become heavier.” She evokes a biblical character as she describes to her pet toads her refusal to take it off: “I think I’m just like Samson, though my strength isn’t in my hair but in my coat. Without my coat I’ll be Death: slave, do you get that?”
Although the above description suggests a quirky, coming-of-age story and a lovable female protagonist, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel does not belong on that shelf. Not even in the same section.
The Discomfort of Evening is a well-written, disturbing, disgusting tale about how a young girl deals with a family tragedy that kills her oldest sibling. It condemns narrow-minded, conservative Christianity. It is also an overly ambitious debut novel by a supremely talented young writer who often tries too hard to be shocking.
Jas Mulder is the middle child, a couple years older than Hanna and a couple years younger than her brother Odde. Jas is a complete physical and mental wreck. She imagines her anxiety as “little stabs inside my belly” and “tickling insects.” She suffers from constipation and bladder-control issues. She imagines that Jews are being protected by her mother in the basement. She masturbates atop her teddy bear, has a fascination for “willies,” and cops feels from her pet rabbit. Jas plays doctor with her siblings and a school friend. Jas is surrounded by predators: the vet, her older brother, and her father.
The Mulders are reformed, conservative Christians who live in a rural Dutch village on a dairy farm. Cows and scripture dominate their world. When 16-year-old Matthies drowns in an ice skating accident, the family crumbles. Mum begins starving herself and can barely tend to her three remaining children or their father. Dad turns his dead son’s dinner-table chair into a shrine. He retreats to the drudgery of farming and demands more and more effort and obedience from his children. He disappears for hours and his daughters expect him to vanish from their lives.
One strand of the novel’s thin plot is connected to a fantasy held by Jas and Hanna about escaping to the “other side,” which refers to the city on the other side of the lake that killed their brother. They imbue this other side with Edenic qualities and fantasise how reaching it will improve their lives.
Her father claims that “death always comes wearing clogs.” She understands this idea as a type of foreshadowing ignored by most people who just don’t want to acknowledge it. This novel wallows in claustrophobic heaviness. Violence or threats of violence are everywhere: rape, murder of animals, diseased cows, incest, suicide.
Jas has tremendously keen perceptive abilities for such a young girl. For example, she shares a keen observation about how her mother deals with her pain and sadness: “Mum only cried with her back to us, and so quietly you couldn’t hear it. Everything her body did was silent.” I was struck by the depth of her empathy, which so greatly surpasses what I imagine most children could summon. Then Jas adds a phrase that crystallises her youth: “even her farts.” That final noun reminds us of her age.
Unfortunately, many examples smack of a narrator looking back on her struggles as a child from an adult perspective: “Mum and Dad don’t see our tics. They don’t realize that the fewer rules there are, the more we start inventing for ourselves.” Such nuance seems forced and unbelievable. Another example: “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.” I struggle to accept that this insight came from an adolescent.
Yet Rijneveld’s writing is often gorgeous and pithy and powerful. There’s a beautiful passage where Jas lies in flowers and hopes that the day will wait long enough to allow her to avoid school and “long enough for the dampness in me to slowly subside.” And I’m also a sucker for aphorisms:
“Anger has hinges that need oiling.”
“Kissing is for old people, and they do it when they’ve run out of words.”
Any Cop?: Although I don’t want to reread this novel anytime soon, I suspect that it will be considered a cult classic in twenty years.