- The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Faber. $29.99.
This impressive debut novel is set in a dairy-farming area of the Netherlands.
It was published in 2018 in Dutch, and was recently translated into English by Michele Hutchinson. It won the 2020 Booker International Prize.
The novel is written from the perspective of Jas, a keen-eyed girl who is 10 years old.
"I was 10 and stopped taking off my coat," the story begins.
"That morning, Mum had covered us one by one in udder ointment to protect us from the cold. It came out of a yellow Bogena tin and was normally used to prevent dairy cows' teats from getting cracks, calluses and cauliflower-like lumps... It smelled of stewed udder, the thick slices I'd sometimes find cooking in a pan of stock on our stove, sprinkled with salt and pepper."
The oldest child, Matthies, is to enter a skating competition and Jas wants to go with him.
"'No you can't', he said. 'And then more quietly so that only I could hear it, 'Because we're going to the other side'."
He never returns, and the other side becomes to Jas a metaphor for death, and one that continually worries her thereafter.
The novel is about loss, grief, and the gradual disintegration of Jas's Dutch Reformist family after Matthies' tragic drowning.
The grieving parents withdraw their love from the remaining three children, and Jas is also intensely aware that they withdraw their love from each other.
Though the parents are religious, regularly attending church, religion offers no real consolation to any of them. It is as Jas and her siblings are also going over "to the other side".
It is also an unrelentingly bleak portrayal of the disintegration of a grieving family that is not for the faint-hearted.
Life on a dairy farm entails an intimacy with bodily functions - both human and animal - that the author does not shrink from detailing. For Jas, her grief manifests itself in a form of anal retention - she is almost permanently constipated - and the men of the family, the father and later Jas's surviving brother, Obbe, engage in various practices to relieve her constipation.
Jas's grief is also manifested in her refusal to stop wearing her red coat regardless of the temperature. The coat pockets are used to store things of importance to her, like the rabbit's whiskers that she and Obbe cut off, and chewing on her coat cords offers her consolation in times of acute stress.
Just when you think life for this family cannot get any worse, foot and mouth disease reaches the area and the family's entire stock of dairy cattle has to be destroyed. The author writes of this with an almost clinical description that is at times deeply moving, as in the description of the slaughter of the cows and in Jas's observations of her family's distraught reactions.
It begins with:
'The first cow is going down now,' Mum says. She's standing next to the cowshed door with a thermos flask in each hand - one of them has got TEA written on it in waterproof marker, the other COFFEE. As though she can keep her balance this way.
But she is unable to stay so balanced, and the family falls further to pieces during and after the slaughter.
'When I go outside, I see Obbe taking off his disposable overalls. He throws them onto the protest fire... If only we could take off our bodies in the same way, freed of the dirt upon us.'
The vet takes part in this slaughter and he visits the farm from time to time. He is kind to Jas, who is longing for affection, especially from her mother.
But when he tells Jas, who is now 12, how pretty she is becoming, even here there is something a little ominous about the way he states this.
The individuals in this family heap onto their loss of Matthies all their disappointments with life, and this really serves to bring home to the reader how devastating the death of a child can be.
The book concludes with a deeply moving final chapter that took me utterly my surprise.
This is a beautiful and powerful novel. But it is also an unrelentingly bleak portrayal of the disintegration of a grieving family that is not for the faint-hearted.
- Alison Booth is Professor of Economics and a novelist. Her latest novel is The Philosopher's Daughters.