‘Nobody knows my heart. It’s hidden deep side my coat, my skin, my ribs. My heart was important for nine months inside my mother’s belly, but once I left the belly, everyone stopped caring whether it beat enough times per hour. No one worries when it stops or begins to beat fast, telling me there must be something wrong.’
― Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening
When you feel discomfort, you tend to do something in order to alter your situation and return to the state of comfort, however, in the process, you learn and you change. Rijneveld’s award-winning novel is definitely discomforting, maybe even disturbing, and quite hard to digest. I read it around a month ago, but it took me quite some time to compose my thoughts about this highly unusual book.
The story opens with 10-year-old Jas, who’s angry because she’s not allowed to go ice-skating with her brother Matthies. In her anger, Jas makes a wish that will make it hard for her to live with herself: she wishes her brother would die instead of her beloved pet rabbit, who she knows is going to end up on the dinner table sooner or later.
And then Matthies doesn’t return home. Ever again. He falls through the ice and is discovered by the villagers, alas too late.
What follows is a story of guilt, cruelty, despair, and madness driven by overwhelming grief. The family slowly and silently dissolves in the murk, and their ruin is made even more unnerving by the plain, straightforward, and grotesquely vivid report of the child narrator. Their strict religion seems to do more damage than good. They turn to God, who remains silent, yet they never turn to each other. ‘We only knew about the harvest that came from the land, not about the things that grew inside ourselves,’ Jas says.
The children, lacking any other outlet, live through their own secret horrors. Jas refuses to take off her red coat, keeps a drawing pin stuck in her belly button, suffers from chronic constipation, and keeps an eye on her wilting mother worried that she might kill herself. Her brother, Obbe, bashes his head against his bed frame at night, starts killing animals including his own pets, and starts exhibiting increasingly sadistic behaviours.
And this is just the beginning. Rijneveld truly doesn’t hold back, and this book that so vividly stirs the uneasy memories of prepubescent explorations of sexuality and death is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
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