The Booker International Prize has gone to the youngest author ever, a 29-year-old Dutch writer named Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who uses they/them pronouns, and their translator Michele Hutchison. One judge described "The Discomfort of Evening" as "a tender and visceral evocation of a childhood caught between shame and salvation."
Having just finished the book, I get the visceral and the shame. The tenderness and the salvation are more elusive.
Perhaps COVID is affecting readers in Europe differently. Here, we seem to looking for relief and/or escape. Perhaps there they are looking for a story that underlines just how lucky you are. "At least I am not stuck on an isolated dairy farm in rural Northern Europe, having just lost my brother in an ice-skating accident, involved in incestuous abuse with all remaining members of the family except my ultrareligious mother who refuses to even touch me, watching my brother drown our hamster and torture our rabbit while our entire herd of cows is shot in the head for hoof-and-mouth disease."
And that leaves out some of the worst stuff.
The novel is narrated by 10-year-old Jas, whose attempt to accept and understand her brother's death is the most relatable and lyrical aspect of the book. "Death has its own coat hook here," she comments, hanging her father's overalls next to her dead brother's undisturbed jacket.
Jas' unique sensibility is responsible for both the most disgusting and most winning moments in the book. The very first paragraph puts you on notice of the former, where Mom slathers her children in an ointment "usually used to prevent cow's udders 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 the stove."
Like many children, Jas is obsessed with body fluids, wastes and functions; a major plot line has to do with her bereavement-inspired constipation. "I wouldn't have to lose anything I wanted to keep from now on." Let us not go into the vile treatments offered by her father and brother, which she in turn administers to both a cow and to a visiting school friend.
At other times, Jas is funny, endearing and wise beyond her years. After watching a film at a friend's house, "Sometimes I woke up shivering from the cold, pulled up the duvet myself, and said 'Sleep tight, dear main character.' "
One of the high points is an amazing address to her pet toads. "Promise me this will stay between us, dear toads, but sometimes I wish I had different parents," she begins. She promises her pets to take them with her when she escapes, even though it may be uncomfortable, because "in discomfort we are real."
She makes good on her pledge.
Unsqueamish readers with a high tolerance for literary child and animal abuse may feel I misunderstand this novel, or am just a wimp. To quote the starred Kirkus Review: "Trigger warnings may not suffice to warn unwary readers of the scatology, violence, and misogyny Jas recounts, but the larger warning should attach to the world she describes, not to her story."
The world I live in has a lot of problems, but I could not see "The Discomfort of Evening" as social commentary. I'll go back to the Zoom meeting, I swear, no more complaints from me.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead" and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
The Discomfort of Evening
By: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 296 pages, $16.