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And the winner is…? International Booker Prize postponed as book sales slump

In the face of unprecedented delay to one of the UK's most prestigious literary awards, Fliss Miles reviews her personal favourite for the prize; 'The Discomfort of Evening' by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

“Restlessness gives wings to the imagination”.

Maurice Gilliams

Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld chose this epigraph to preface their debut novel, ‘The Discomfort of Evening’, long before Coronavirus demanded a state of restlessness worldwide. Now, the quotation takes on a hopeful and poignant quality, speaking to the many acts of creativity that have been borne from lock-down. But for Rijneveld and the other five authors shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, this period has been rendered more febrile with the news that the announcement of the prize-winner will be postponed indefinitely.

The International Booker prize awards £50,000 for the best novel translated into English, which is shared equally between author and translator. The winner was due to be announced on 19th May, following the announcement of the shortlist on 2nd April. Organisers made the decision to delay the award after publishers and booksellers emphasised the unprecedented difficulties posed by Covid-19 to the sales and distribution of the shortlisted novels. A new date has not been given for the announcement of the winner, but it is likely to take place later in the year. 

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ stands out as the only debut novel on the shortlist. At 28 years-old, Rijneveld, who uses the pronouns they/them, is one of the youngest authors ever to be shortlisted for a Booker prize, beaten only by Daisy Johnson, who was just 27 when her novel ‘Everything Under’ was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Rijneveld’s debut tells the story of an intensely religious Dutch dairy-farming family, whose lives are fractured after one of their sons dies in an ice-skating accident. The narrative premise holds a striking parallel with the author’s own life; Rijneveld’s older brother died after being hit by a bus when he was 12-years-old. 

The novel is narrated through Jas, the middle child, and is quick to establish the unsettling mixture of childish innocence and profound psychological trauma that characterises the rest of the book. It opens with Jas feeling jealous of her older brother, Matthies, who sets off to go ice-skating with local children, somewhere too dangerous for the young Jas to join them. Simultaneously, Jas suspects that her father wants to serve her pet rabbit for Christmas dinner in a week’s time. Before bed that night, Jas adds a flippant prayer to her usual repertoire, asking for her rabbit’s life to be saved in place of Matthies’. The following morning, a doctor returns Matthies’ dead body to the family home. 

Rijneveld’s simple and candid tone, translated into English by Michele Hutchison, masterfully captures the interiority of a child’s mind, particularly the freedom of imaginative association that comes with youth — the warts on a toad’s back are like the ‘capers’ found in the kitchen of Jas’s mother, for example. But the authenticity of this innocent narrative voice takes on an increasingly uncanny quality as it is forced to confront the family’s trauma. In one vivid moment, Jas recalls a schoolteacher recommending that students push drawing pins into a map of the world, choosing the places they’d most like to go; Jas desires to escape the distressing world she finds herself in by folding up inside herself and disappearing, so she decides to push a drawing pin into her own belly-button. The wound becomes progressively more infected as the novel continues, serving as a gruesome marker of the passing of time.

Tactility is a major concern of the novel, allowing Rijneveldt to showcase their notable talent for transposing sensory experience into language. This starts as something innocuous and child-like, such as Jas’ experience of holding the decorative Christmas angels that lie around the house, or the feeling of sticking her fingers into the soft cheese that her mother makes from the farm’s dairy cows. It soon acquires a more sinister quality after Matthies’ death; Jas touches her dead brother’s eyelids, sensing the tissue paper that the mortician put behind them to paste them shut. In more sensitive moments, Jas mourns the loss of physical affection from her parents; she positions herself in the way of her mother in the kitchen in the hope that her mother might accidentally brush past her — the children have not been hugged or touched by their parents since the death. 

With their parents preoccupied by a potent mixture of extreme grief and religious guilt, each of the surviving children develop unsettling compulsions and obsessions. Jas refuses to take off her coat for months on end and starts to hoard a variety of objects in her pockets. Her older brother, Obbe, repeatedly bangs his head against the wall at night. These troubling behaviours are intensified by the backdrop of the family’s extreme evangelism — Matthies’ chair at the family dining table is kept untouched in its place as they anticipate his return at the Second Coming. Indeed, because the death occurs so early-on in the book, the reader finds herself questioning whether the children’s morbid behaviours were caused by this immediate trauma or were already established by their intensely stifling family dynamic. Death continues to follow the family even after the tragic accident; Obbe drowns his pet hamster in front of his sisters in a perturbed mirroring of their brother’s death, and the dairy-farm is blighted by foot-and-mouth disease (the book is set in the years after the millennium, when there were numerous outbreaks of the infection). 

This is a disturbing and unsettling read that is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but its vivid and gruesome components are in no way gratuitous. There are elements that may sit too uncomfortably with some readers, particularly its treatment of Jas learning about the Holocaust at school through her childish mind, and other visceral depictions of bodily orifices being penetrated by fingers and farm tools (Jas’ father tries to treat her constipation in a rather violent way, and later there is some difficulty with a cow and an artificial insemination device). But Rijneveld possesses a singular talent for narrating the abrasive, distressing and unnerving elements of extreme trauma when experienced through young minds. Already a bestseller in the Netherlands, ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is a confident and provocative debut that undoubtedly deserves its spot on the International Booker Prize shortlist, if not the top-prize itself. 

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