Book review: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

I listened to the audiobook of The Discomfort of Evening on my drive back to Melbourne from the Blue Mountains in NSW. The first thing that struck me was the amazing imagery Marieke Lucas Rijneveld uses in her debut novel. The second was that the word ‘discomfort’ in the title is understated. I was equally enthralled and disturbed by the novel.

It’s confusing, but grown-ups are often confusing because their heads work like a Tetris game and they have to arrange all their worries in the right place

Ten year old Jas wishes her brother Matthies would die instead of her rabbit. There are two reasons for this – she is not allowed to go ice-skating with him and thinks her dairy farming father has his eye on her pet rabbit for dinner. When her brother falls through the ice and dies, it sets up a massive internal conflict for Jas in an environment where the family is falling apart in the darkness of grief through a lens of devout faith. The unfolding drama is narrated by Jas and reported in an undramatic way, as if what is happening is ok, because she doesn’t know any better. This childlike interpretation adds to the unease for the reader/listener because it is so far from ok.

I don’t want to feel any sadness, I want action; something to pierce my days, like bursting a blister with a pin so that the pressure is eased

Each member of the remaining five in the family develop their own unique dysfunctional responses to the death of Matthies, the oldest son. Talking about his head is forbidden, having feelings is discouraged and everything is contextualised in oblique biblical interpretation.

I’m beginning to have more and more doubts about whether I find God nice enough to want to go and talk to Him. I’ve discovered that there are two ways of losing your belief: some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves. I think I’ll belong to that second group.

The novel is told from the point of view of young Jas who is bewildered by the adult world and has developed distorted views due to the constraints of the families extreme religious beliefs. It is a book about grief, family disfunction, religion, and boundaries (or lack thereof) described in brutally vivid detail. Rijneveld’s writing is beautifully discomforting.