The title of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s first novel, a bestseller in their native Holland and the winner of this year’s International Booker Prize, makes it seem like an Italian metaphysical painting, perhaps a de Chirico piazza or colonnade enigmatically bathed in Mediterranean light, when in fact the book is set on a Dutch dairy farm like the one on which its author was raised. The light is hardly Vermeer’s either, and the shadows are deep. The story, starting just before Christmas 2000, is told by Jas Mulder, a year older than Rijneveld, who was born in 1991, but has a similar background.
In Michel Houllebecq’s most recent novel, Serotonin, published last year, French dairy farming was seen as a heroic anachronism doomed by the implacable centralising agenda of the EU. Its Dutch equivalent here is a squalid, precarious and (thanks to the ingrained attitudes of the Dutch Reformed Church) benighted way of life. The word ‘discomfort’ in the title understates the misery of these lives even before individual tragedy and farming crisis strike (an infection to the herd, experienced not just as a business catastrophe but as a crisis of faith), though understatement is not Rijneveld’s preferred approach.
Living close to the land is hardly a blessing. A diet rich in dairy products doesn’t seem appealing: lukewarm milk is a mucus that develops a snotlike film on top, something to be choked down, not savoured. It’s clear from the first paragraph that the boundary between family and livestock isn’t fixed: to protect their skin from the cold Jas’s mother smears her children’s faces with the same ointment she uses to prevent the dairy cows’ teats from developing cracks. Child-rearing is a sort of indoor farming, after all, and the local vet uses the word ‘livestock’ when asking after the children. As Jas sees it, ‘no one stood a chance against the cows anyway; they were always more important.’
The values of the Dutch Reformed Church as inculcated by the Mulders set more store by chastening than reward, to the point where it can seem that rewards are only there to be taken away. Dad removes the luminous stars from the ceiling of Jas’s bedroom when her performance at school is unsatisfactory, and Mum makes her take a hammer to her piggy bank to pay a forfeit after she breaks off a row of miniature plastic trees from an old model of Thunderbird Island. The piggy bank has a hole which would allow her to extract the money, but Mum insists on a more dramatic punishment.
The children (Jas is the third of four, and the older girl) make no reasoned objection to the discipline of piety in which they are being raised, but instinctively elaborate a world of covert obscenity: ‘I took a slice of white bread from the basket and put it on my plate upside down so that it looked just like a pale toddler’s bum, even more convincing when partly spread with chocolate spread, which never failed to amuse me and my brothers, and they’d always say: “Are you arse-licking again?”’ Presenting this defiant subculture within the family as early as the third page of the novel is a risky move, requiring Rijneveld to escalate on later pages to a formidable level of taboo-breaking. It also makes it unnecessary for the reader to take the family’s religion seriously, since it has already been shown to be destructive and self-defeating.
In theory Jas’s two grannies represent different intensities of commitment – there’s a more religious and a less religious side to the family – but no such nuance is detectable in the text, unless it’s the presence of a coil stuck in Jas’s baby album right next to the printout of her first scan, ‘a copper tube with a bow on it and little white hooks like tiny shark’s teeth that could bite every sperm dead, and a thread at the bottom that looks like a mucus trail. I’d managed to avoid the coil and had swum through it.’ When she asks Dad about it, he quotes something that isn’t exactly scriptural, about the requirement to bring forth and multiply – but make sure you’ve got enough bedrooms first. Jas overhears a conversation between her parents about Mum getting pregnant before they were married and having an abortion for respectability’s sake, another choice hard to square with the code they claim to live by.
When Matthies, Jas’s oldest brother, drowns in a skating accident just before Christmas, the family’s two overlapping but opposed cultures, the piously coercive and the perversely rebellious, close in on themselves. Matthies’s memory is sacred, his chair at the table not to be used by anyone else (Jas gets into trouble for knocking it over), though eventually she moves into his room, sleeping in his bed and very conscious of the hollow his body made in it night after night, ‘the shape left by death’. Dad paints over the doorpost where he used to mark the children’s heights after Matthies doesn’t come home and won’t be getting any taller, but no one cancels his judo magazine subscription, so that ‘his death comes crashing onto the doormat again’ every Friday. At this point, a year and a half has passed since the death – that’s nearly eighty traumatising impacts, perhaps the repetitive crashing of literary irony being overindulged.
Jas’s surviving brother, Obbe, bangs his head against the edge of the bed, hard enough to leave a mark. Dad says children are too young to have worries, which come only when you have to plough and grub your own fields, but saying the right thing isn’t his strong suit. When Matthies was in his coffin, he said, to comfort Jas: ‘They’ve put cotton wads in his bottom to stop his crap coming out. He must still be warm inside. That makes me feel better.’ Jas herself goes in for a less showy form of self-harm than head-banging, putting a drawing pin in her navel and leaving it there. This connects with a lesson at school: you were supposed to choose a place you’d like to go and then stick a pin in the map (‘One day I’d like to go to myself’). She has two particular grounds for feeling guilty about her brother’s death, one irrational, one less so. On the day of Matthies’s death, perhaps at the very moment he died, she had asked God to take him rather than her pet rabbit, Dieuwertje. She was jealous that Matthies was old enough to be allowed to go skating ‘on the other side’, but also worried that Dad had been giving Dieuwertje extra rations, something that suggested not affection but the desire to fatten him up for the table at Christmas. She could imagine the bed of lamb’s lettuce on which Mum would lay Dieuwertje’s roasted body after Dad had snapped his neck and skinned him, the gherkins, tomato chunks, grated carrot and thyme that would be used to garnish the feast. Less fanciful is Jas’s guilt that she didn’t remind Matthies to take his ice-piercer. The pin in her navel corresponds to the steel-tipped pin that might have saved his life.
Since his death she has refused to take off her yellow coat, whose pockets she fills with fetishes, such as Dieuwertje’s whiskers, which Obbe cut off for no particular reason. In fact Jas accumulates a compendium of obsessions, as if she or the author was working through the index of a book on abnormal psychology. She worries that her mother will kill herself. She suspects that her father will run away. She helps keep watch on some migrating toads and puts two of them in her pockets when their route crosses a road, keeping them in her room, hoping they will mate. She thinks this will somehow encourage her parents to do the same. The toads do not thrive, though she pushes them together and offers them salad leaves, old toast and faux-naif monologues: ‘What I was wondering, friends, was whether you toads can actually cry or do you go swimming when you feel sad?’
There’s animal cruelty of a more active sort, starting when, again for no particular reason, Obbe drowns his hamster in a water glass (‘It’s only a few seconds before he starts to float like a grey air bubble in a spirit level’). The animal is called Tiesey, which was also Matthies’s nickname. Dad tells the children that they shouldn’t let a large rabbit mate with a small one, but they ignore the warning since he’s two heads taller than Mum and she survived giving birth to them, didn’t she? The dwarf rabbit underneath Dieuwertje dies on the spot. Later, in a rather oblique effort to discover whether the vet is the ‘rescuer’ she and her younger sister, Hanna, long for, Jas thrusts a cheese scoop deep into a cow’s anus. Will the vet spot it? His examination is perfunctory, but since the entire herd is about to be slaughtered after an outbreak of foot and mouth he probably doesn’t recognise the urgency. Jas and Hanna want a ‘rescuer’ to help them get away from home ‘to the other side’, meaning the other side of the lake, but the phrase’s symbolic associations aren’t hard to spot.
The children experiment sexually in various combinations. Jas lies on top of her teddy bear and rocks back and forth against it, until Mum, coming into the room, pronounces what she’s doing disgusting, claps her hands three times as if she was scaring away a crow, and takes the toy to be washed. Jas and Hanna role-play Mum and Dad, with Hanna wearing Dad’s Sunday suit and speaking his lines while Jas impersonates Mum:
‘I’m looking for a man to save me from this terrible village. Someone who is very strong. And handsome. And kind.’
‘Well madam, then you’ve come to the right place. Shall we kiss?’
Before I can answer, she presses her lips to mine and immediately pushes her tongue inside. It’s lukewarm, like a leftover steak that Mum’s warmed up in the microwave and served again. She moves it around rapidly a few times, her saliva mixing with mine and dripping down my cheek.
They laugh hysterically, and fall asleep next to each other.
There’s also a trio scene. Obbe, older but still adolescent, takes the lead, telling Hanna (who can’t be more than nine) to take off her knickers. ‘I look at the slit between her legs. It doesn’t look like the custard bun Obbe was talking about. More like the slug Obbe once cut open behind the boot-jack with his penknife, that slime came out of.’ In this context the real surprise would be anyone having something nice to say about the body. Jas covers Hanna’s eyes to make sure she doesn’t peek at her own objectification. Obbe shakes a Coke can wildly, holds it next to Hanna’s genitals and opens it with the ring pull, so that ‘the Coke squirts in a straight line into her flesh. Hanna’s hips jerk, she cries out. But what I see in her eyes when I take away my hand in shock is not something I know. Not pain but more like peace.’ Obbe repeats the trick with another Coke can. Hanna moans quietly. Obbe breaks the ring pull off one of the cans and lays it ‘on the little pink ball sticking out from the slit. He gives it a quick jerk as though he wants to open her like a can of Coke. Hanna moans louder now and writhes across the duvet.’ Jas intervenes, saying that Obbe is hurting Hanna, though there’s no sign of that and her motives remain opaque. Then Obbe fishes some discarded ring pulls from the bin beneath his desk – ‘dozens’ of them, in fact – and pushes them into Hanna’s vulva one by one, saying that it’s her job to keep them safe.
This seems a case of transgression by numbers. A first novel that stakes everything on shock value is something of a tradition, whether or not its author goes on to show a wider range, as Iain Banks did after The Wasp Factory in 1984, or leaves it at that, as Charlotte Roche seems to have done since the publication of Wetlands in 2008. In any case Rijneveld’s material, though irreproachably extreme, can be interpreted equally glibly in diametrically opposed ways, as an indictment of a bigoted upbringing or as a revelation of original sin. It’s clear that much of the story is intended or imagined to be shocking, but literary shock is a distinct phenomenon from shock as experienced in life or mediated in other ways, through gossip or the news. What shocks in art is not what shocks in life. There needs to be an element of internal tension if the reader is to be troubled in anything but a shallow way. The shocking passages in Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers (2011) don’t derive their horror from the brute fact of a child being kidnapped and kept in a basement – such things are reported in the newspapers – but from the obscene innocence of the words her captor uses to describe his actions. ‘Then I went downstairs and made love to my little lady’ – the formula generates a hideous frisson every time. On a grander scale, Lolita continues to destabilise its readers by constantly blurring the line that divides normal from abnormal, love from abuse. In The Discomfort of Evening there’s no whisper of normality to be heard. The status quo is dysfunctional even before its theoretical disruption by grief and then bovine epidemic, which makes it hard to care.
Bereavement and family crisis, explored without psychological plausibility, are pretexts for any amount of inertly lurid invention. Jas has grotesque nightmares: ‘Sometimes I dream that worms as big as rattlesnakes are coming out of my anus: they have lion’s jaws and I’ve fallen into the hollow in my mattress like Daniel in the lion pit.’ She has dark thoughts: ‘Suddenly I wonder whether butterflies have a shorter life expectancy when they know they can flap themselves to death.’ High-flown language is part and parcel of a religious background. If your granny says things like ‘death is a process that disintegrates into actions and actions into phases’ it’s no wonder that the people in your dreams say things like: ‘Do you know how many voles in the belly of a fox would mean he no longer had to fathom his own emptiness?’
Jas’s most contrived set of obsessions concerns the Holocaust. A school lesson about the Second World War provokes the thought that the only difference between Hitler and her is that
I’m afraid of vomiting and diarrhoea, not Jewish people – even though I’ve never seen a Jew in real life, but maybe they are still hiding in people’s attics or cellars, hidden by Dutch farmers like in the war, or perhaps that’s why we’re not allowed down in the basement. There must be a reason Mum takes two full supermarket bags down there on Friday evenings.
Neither author nor character can leave those imaginary Jews alone. An extra feed-bag of bread (the Mulders live off bakery rejects) must be for the Jews in the basement. ‘Maybe Mum makes good omelettes for them and cuddles them, making her forget to hold us.’ She prays for the non-existent Jews although she thinks it’s unfair that they should be allowed cornflakes and hot dogs. She worries that Mum will move into the basement one day, finding the Jewish people down there nicer than her own family. She imagines a table laid between the flour packets and pots of gherkins, with Mum as guest of honour. Jas will ask the Jews to sing the Song of Songs, Mum’s favourite.
If the rest of the book’s toxic flora were cut back or even pruned this strand might bear fruit, but there’s no chance of that. It happens that Rijneveld shares a birthday with Hitler, although the resources of fiction would have allowed them to give the narrator a different one. Jas writes ‘A.H.’ very faintly against the star marking her own birthday on the calendar above the sink in the toilet. Obbe demands a password before she can be allowed into his bedroom, and changes it arbitrarily one day, saying Jas will have to come up with something good of her own. She tries ‘Heil Hitler’, which works, but only after Obbe has made her repeat it with her arm raised. Rijneveld puts some work into developing this theme; the only question is whether the payoff, after more than a hundred pages, is worth it:
The teacher told us during the history lesson that Hitler had fallen through ice when he was four and had been saved by a priest, that some people can fall through ice and it’s better if they’re not rescued. I wondered then why a bad person like Hitler could be saved and not my brother. Why the cows had to die when they hadn’t done anything wrong.
A richer theme, because properly biblical, is rushed. As Jas explains to Hanna, their family is experiencing all the plagues of Egypt, just in the wrong order:
‘You had a nosebleed which meant water changed into blood. We’ve had the toad migration, head lice at school, the death of the firstborn, horseflies around the muck-heap, a grasshopper squashed by Obbe’s boot, ulcers on my tongue from the fried egg, and hailstorms.’
‘And you think that’s why there’s a cattle plague now?’ Hanna asks with a shocked expression.
For once the tone seems persuasively balanced between extremes, and the explanation is one that might plausibly occur to scripturally saturated children. It doesn’t last:
After this, there’s one more to come, I think to myself, and that’s the worst one: darkness, total darkness, daytime eternally clad in Dad’s Sunday overcoat. I don’t say it loud but we both know there are two people in this house who long constantly for the other side, who want to cross the lake and make sacrifices there, whether Fireball gobstoppers or dead animals.
That’s the end of the plagues of Egypt theme, apart from passing references to the coming darkness, a promising apocalypse nipped in the bud.
One obvious structural weakness of The Discomfort of Evening is that the crucial occurrence, the drowning of Matthies, doesn’t actually change anything. The precipitating incident, as creative writing courses like to call it, precipitates remarkably little, since family relations are already wound to a grotesquely exaggerated pitch. On the first page of the book Mum’s protective gesture of anointing her children with ointment is presented as punitive violence:
I felt her slippery thumbs in my eye sockets and for a moment I was afraid she’d press too hard, that my eyeballs would plop into my skull like marbles, and she’d say: ‘That’s what happens when your eyes are always roaming and you never keep them still like a true believer, gazing up at God as though the heavens might break open at any moment.’
This is very extreme for a first page, and dynamics are important – literary dynamics as much as family dynamics.
In those opening pages Jas expresses a protective urge with a death wish barely disguised within it. Mum hands out freezer bags, to be worn inside the children’s boots to keep them warm and dry. Jas wishes she could put a freezer bag over Matthies’s head, too, ‘so that he’d stay warm for a long time’. This is equally crude as psychology (any ten-year-old would know about the dangers of plastic bags) and as ‘foreshadowing’ of his imminent death. Love-hate within a family is an inexhaustible subject, but this is something else, a systematic distortion of feeling. Hatred that has learned to wear the mask of love is everywhere in the book, artificially shocking and repetitious. Jas and Hanna play a game of deciding how they’d prefer Mum and Dad to die: Murder or cancer? Jumping off the silo or drowning? Tractor accident or fall into the slurry pit? All with a (self-)protective agenda, so they won’t be surprised whatever happens, but it’s hard to see this rehearsal for being orphaned as emotionally neutral. The parting in Dad’s hair makes him look like a screw with a slotted head. Jas would like to ‘bore him into the ground’. Perhaps they should dunk Mum and Dad in the brine bath Mum uses to prepare cumin cheeses, so that they will ‘firm up and keep well for longer’. Sometimes she thinks it would be more peaceful if they were dunked for ever. Riffing on the idea of talking someone’s ears off, she imagines having to stick Dad’s ears back on with Pritt Stick, or better yet, putting them in a little velvet box and whispering ‘the sweetest and most terrible words into them every night, before putting the lid back on and shaking the box so I’m sure the words have slid into the ear canal’. When Hanna is wearing Dad’s suit, Jas thinks how easily you could puncture the padded shoulders with a knife, the shoulders that lend him authority. Another time she thinks she’d like to push his head into some ink, as if he was a fountain pen, and write an ugly sentence with him.
What has Dad done to deserve this, apart from everything? It’s true that Jas finds it humiliating when he forces chunks of soap up her to cure her constipation, but he’s probably just confusing children and livestock – Jas herself compares her position, lying sideways on a settee, with that of a ‘breech calf’. Presumably, though, Dad doesn’t stick his tongue in the cows’ ears, as he sometimes does when he comes to kiss her goodnight.
Rijneveld is a published poet, and goes to town with figurative language. The excuse for this within the text is that Jas has an overactive imagination, and a mind pushed by her religious upbringing towards both literalism and the finding of didactic analogies. It’s the rapidity of the processing that becomes preposterous. Pancakes are served at Matthies’s wake, for instance, and someone has made a face on Dad’s with bramble jam, raisins and apple. He wants to know who. ‘His eyes stopped at Granny who smiled at him just as cheerfully as his pancake.’ Then the pancake is used as a way of describing Granny herself: ‘More and more brown patches were appearing on her face, like the apples she’d cut up and used as mouths on the pancakes. You get overripe from old age in the end.’ Finally, ‘Granny smiled at me. I wanted her to stop smiling. I wanted Dad to take his fork to her face and mash everything up like he’d done with his pancake.’ This is barely controlled, closer to a tic than a way of looking at the world or an aspect of technique.
The certainty that details within a scene will reappear almost immediately, transformed into images, drains emotion instead of intensifying it. Matthies’s coffin has a viewing window in it. Hanna raps on the glass to wake him up, and Jas doesn’t know how to tell her that he’s not coming back – ‘from now on we’d only have viewing windows in our hearts with our brother laid out behind them.’ It’s as if she’s been losing brothers and contemplating coffins her whole life. Sometimes the over-rapid recourse to imagery muffles the scene. When Matthies is laid out, for instance, tissue paper is stuck under his eyelids to keep them shut. Jas wants to see his eyes one more time:
I tried to spread open his eyes, which made me think of the paper nativity scene I’d made at school, with coloured tissue paper as stained glass and Mary and Joseph figurines. At the Christmas breakfast, a tea light had been lit behind them so the tissue paper would light up and Jesus could be born in an illuminated stable. But my brother’s eyes were dull and grey and there wasn’t a stained glass pattern. I quickly let the eyelids drop again and closed the viewing window.
The distracting associations of tissue paper intervene between the reader and the reality of what is being described, turning what might be a harrowing moment into something merely grotesque.
This writer and this narrator are to be trusted when they stay close to the realities of life on a dairy farm. It’s easy to believe that Jas hates taking a beaker of syrup and buttermilk to school (her classmates, lucky enough to have ‘real drinking yoghurt’ in a box, tell her it stinks), that her duvet cover smells of liquid manure if the wind direction changed while it was hanging on the line, that skating on the frozen surface of the manure ditch behind the cowsheds isn’t much fun, what with the blades of your skates turning light brown if you score into the ice. Rijneveld isn’t satisfied with such truthful miseries, and all the attempts to soar into the upper air of pathology, provocation and metaphorical overload leave mere readers behind.