Dutch writer wins the International Booker Prize

THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Written by 28 year old Dutch literary sensation, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, her first novel is already a best seller here in the Netherlands. Originally published in 2018, it has been translated into English  by British literary translator, Michele Hutchison. The book was this week awarded the International Booker Prize. The £50,000 prize is shared between the author and translator.

Mariike Rijneveld was born in Nieuwendijk in the Netherlands. She grew up and still lives and works on a dairy farm. The young Dutch literary star, who grew up in a strict Reformed Protestant farming family, identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘us’, when referring to herself. Her novel delves into some of the discomfort she experienced growing up in this environment. The discomfort was exacerbated after the death of her 12 year old brother in an ice-skating accident. The original title of the novel, De avond is ongemak may be translated directly from Dutch as ‘the evening is uncomfortable, inconvenient, even awkward’. The Dutch word, ‘ongemak’ incorporates all of these and gives a flavour of the poetic language of the novel.

Rijnveld brought out her first collection of poetry in 2015, Kalfsvlies (Calf’s Caul) for which she won the C.Buddingh’ Prize. Some have suggested that the novel is in many ways a natural extension of this poetry collection. It is filled with imagery and metaphors that are inspired by the quotidian details of rural Dutch life, seen through the eyes of a child. Translator, Hutchison, agrees that it is  the poetry of the novel that stands out and which she most enjoyed translating. She also particularly liked the book’s ten year old child narrator, Jas, whose quiet, intelligent gaze takes in the slow disintegration of her family in wake of her brother’s death.

The author’s own brother died when she was three. Rijnveld admits that this was such a major occurrence in their lives, that the impact was intense. ‘I’d known for a long time that if I were to write a book, this would be the starting point’ she says. The young writer also acknowledges the inspiration she drew from fellow Dutch writer, Jan Wolkers. Author of Terug naar Oostergeest (Back to Oostergeest). Considered one of the great post-war Dutch writers, Wolkers returns to his childhood home in this novel and describes it with the kind of graphic, often disturbing images that characterize parts of Rijnveld’s novel.  The young writer explains that they shared the same religious upbringing and he too ‘writes a lot about nature, sexuality and belief’. She admits to having a large portrait of him above her desk and imagines that he smiles at her when she has written well.

The Discomfort of Evening begins with young narrator, Jas, asking God to spare her pet rabbit and take her brother instead. She is worried that her rabbit will end up on the table for dinner at the hands of her unsentimental farmer father. Then her brother falls through the ice while skating and drowns and the events develop from there. Hutchison describes the novel as ‘dark’ and agrees that it definitely ‘gets under your skin’.  ‘Disturbing’ and ‘unflinching’ have also been used to describe the book. Booker Prize judge, Valeri Luiselli talks of the ‘strange, disquieting , solitary world of the highly perceptive and intelligent child narrator’. The novel is undeniably powerful and we await the judges decision with interest.     Souwie Buis