When 10-year-old Jas's brother Matthies passes away in an ice-skating accident, she and her family fall into despair. They all begin coping with it in increasingly bizarre and self-destructive ways. Her father becomes more distant and aggressive, her mother stops eating, and her siblings start engaging in unusual rituals. Jas herself starts refusing to ever take her red coat off to the point it starts to smell and refuses to defecate until her stomach bulges. To make matters worse, an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease threatens to kill all of their cattle, the source of their livelihood.
“...according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort, we are real.”
This debut novel from Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is a character study of a young sheltered girl dealing with grief. Because of her lack of experiences, living on a farm most of her life with little media exposure, and her religious upbringing, she finds herself unable to properly express her feelings. To make it worse, she feels a deep sense of guilt because on the day her brother passed, she had prayed for something to happen to him instead of to her pet rabbit.
The repression of her feelings is represented by her refusal to take off her coat and her refusal to go to the bathroom. Both of these build to the point where the idea of being forced to take her coat off itself causes her to nearly have a breakdown and even when she begins to try to defecate, she finds herself unable to. Her repression runs so deep, that she no longer has the tools to let her emotions out.
Jas also begins to lose herself in various fantasies. One of them, that she shares with her sister, is that someone will eventually come along and “rescue” her. She doesn't even seem to really know what this means, but she imagines it in vague terms involving being swept off her feet, fairy tale style, and being taken away from her farm. She also gets the idea, from studying World War II in school, that her mother is hiding Jews in the basement, despite the fact that she never sees any and may not even really under what a Jewish person is.
Because of the strain that their son's death put on their marriage, Jas's mother and father seem unable to console her or dissuade her from any of her odd fantasies. If anything, they make these worse in their attempts. Her father tries to help what he believes to be her severe constipation by forcing soap into her anus. This does nothing except cause her to feel a deep sense of shame. In addition, sexual games by her friends and siblings going through puberty causes her to have an even more dysfunctional relationship with her own body.
This book reminded me a lot of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden. While in that novel, it shows children whose lives disintegrate because of the passing of a parental figure, this one is about a child whose parental figures are corrupt (the vet), stultified by their own issues (her mother and father), or too distant (her pastor). As such, she's left mostly on her own to figure out her confused emotions and the results are just as ugly.
The Discomfort of Evening is a creepy, visceral, disturbing, beautifully crafted, and incredibly engaging debut novel. Because of its incredibly bleak nature it likely will alienate a lot of readers, but I believe it's one of the best representations of repressed grief and childhood without proper guidance that I've read recently. I very highly recommend this. I look forward to what Rijneveld will come out with in the future.
Buy The Discomfort of Evening in paperback.