Once a week, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld spends a morning clearing shit from the manure channels in a cowshed outside of Utrecht. It’s the novelist and poet’s favourite way to relax; they spend the rest of their time sitting down at a writing desk in the city, so the physical demands of working on a dairy farm serve as a sort of meditative activity. Besides, cows are kind of nice to be with. “Cows are very sensitive,” Rijneveld explains, a few months before the UK publication of their novel, The Discomfort of Evening. “You find that if the farmer is sensitive, the cows he looks after are sensitive, too.”
The Discomfort of Evening has to be the most talked-about debut novel of 2020 already. Its first English translation is being published by Faber, after a tense three-way auction last year. It has been or is to be translated into nine languages. I found it absolutely compelling; it also gave me, in the course of reading it, brutal and vivid nightmares that left me feeling disturbed.
Rijneveld was born in 1991 and grew up on a farm in the not-especially famous Dutch province of North Brabant. The Discomfort of Evening draws on the author’s rural upbringing to tell the story of a devout farming family confronted by a tidal wave of grief. The ten-year-old narrator, Jas, is left unmoored by the sudden death of her older brother Matthies in a tragic accident, and she and her siblings turn to a series of increasingly disturbing rituals to try and keep their family together. From the first page, you can see why this book lit such a fire on its publication in Rijneveld’s home country. More than just an unnervingly accomplished debut novel, it confronts some extremely dark subject matter, establishing Rijneveld as an exceptional novelist with a gift for profoundly fucked-up imagery.
But back to the cows. In The Discomfort of Evening, the line between the world of humans and the world of animals is blurred. Whether pets, family members or livestock, cruelty and physical pain are shown to the reader in extreme close-up, in heinous detail. Animals are killed, for both business and pleasure. Children are hurt. At one point, Jas thinks about how to kill a rabbit: “It’s a scary thought that we hold other beings’ death in our hands, however small mine are – like bricklaying trowels you can use them to build, but also to chop things to the right size with the sharp edge.” Death is never far away. The pain of Jas and her family is unavoidable and extreme on the page, much like the lived experience of grief – it comes through as a cacophony of grotesque sensation and emotion that is impossible to moderate.
“Growing up with animals, I learned a lot about them,” Rijneveld says of how the novel chimes with their own experience. “There’s definitely an overlapping in my own story and the story in the novel.” Their family also experienced loss at an early age, with the author’s own brother dying when Rijneveld was three years old. As with Jas’s family, the heavy hand of religion lay over everything. “I grew up with a threatening, cruel God. And it was clear that this God could give, and that he could take, and suddenly he took away my brother. As a child, I was always really scared of God, but it was a kind of fear that was paired with fascination. I went to church a lot, but it’s difficult to grow up with that kind of cruel God. I felt like God was present – like he lived in the loft of our farm, and Mum would take him up a dish of crumbs and milk and everything, like a stray cat.” In the novel, talking to God means engaging in a one-sided conversation; over and over again, Jas attempts to make futile bargains with God that might bring Matthies back. None of them can possibly work.
“I felt like God was present – like he lived in the loft of our farm, and Mum would take him up a dish of crumbs and milk and everything, like a stray cat” –Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
Also, like Jas, Rijneveld relied on their imagination as a child to provide solace amid dark days. In their early 20s, Rijneveld adopted the name Lucas, alongside Marieke, to represent their identity as non-binary. (It was originally the name of their imaginary friend.) “When you’re a child, it’s quite normal to be ‘in between’,” says the author. “When you’re a young girl you can be boyish. I didn’t experience it as a problem until secondary school, when on my first day two girls came up and asked, ‘Well, what are you?’ After that I knew if I acted more girly, I wouldn’t get bullied.” It was later, when the feeling of being ‘in between’ returned, that Rijneveld adopted the double-barrelled name. Hard as figuring out your identity can already be, they went through much of this in the public eye. “I’ve built up an identity now. It might be hard losing that if I did decide to transition.” Now something of a celebrity in the Netherlands, Rijneveld favours suits, ties and braces when dressing for the spotlight. “I love the way Timothée Chalamet dresses – I’m a big fan of his. But I also choose to wear what I like. When I wear a suit, it makes me feel strong.”
As a debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening is far from unique in its use of the author’s own life as a source material. But for Rijneveld, the overlap was tough for their family to comprehend. “I knew early on that I wanted to write about my brother,” they say. “But it hurts my family to write what I want to write. My father hasn’t read (the novel). My mother has. I did have to tell them that they weren’t the parents in the novel. The most difficult thing was my brother. My parents never talked about their loss, so it was hard for them that their own child had started to talk about it.” Grief itself is taboo, difficult for people to talk about, and sometimes it takes a piece of art – a novel, a song – to elucidate the complexity of the emotions being experienced. In the novel, Rijneveld notes, there are instances where the wellbeing of the farm’s livestock takes precedence over that of the family’s children. For some people, it seems, understanding and caring for an animal is easier than doing the same for a human being.
The novel’s first publication in 2018 sent shockwaves through the Dutch literary world, earning praise for the way Rijneveld addresses personal trauma with an unflinching gaze. Rijneveld, who has also published two volumes of poetry, won the prestigious ANV Debut Prize last year. I tell them I read one Dutch commentator speculating that the novel might be “too Dutch” to succeed overseas. “Yeah, the food that the characters eat – Russian salad and so on – and the TV presenter (who Jas adores)... That’s all very Dutch,” says Rijneveld, laughing. It must come as a surprise, I say, to have your novel about a small part of the country meet with such intense acclaim so quickly (at Faber, it’s the first time they have published a new Dutch novel since 2001). “It’s been strange... Because I didn’t have any expectation at all, as a beginner. I’d have just been happy if the people in my home village had read the book. Now it’s the whole world.”
Now Rijneveld is working on a second novel, told from the perspective of a boy just a little older than Jas. “I can’t tell you much more than that,” they say, cryptically. Childhood evidently still holds some fascina- tion for them. Why is that? “Children have better imaginations. It feels the closest to me. I still feel that I’m just a big kid, really. And it helps me to get into that world.” Even though The Discomfort of Evening is marked by pain and suffering, there’s something intensely hopeful about Jas and her dogged determination to keep going, to put the shattered pieces of her family back together. She negotiates with God, carrying treasured amulets in the belief that they might help things. She goes along with her brother Obbe’s sadistic rituals because she thinks they might make things better. One night, when she is having trouble sleeping, Jas longs for love, “like the warmth in the cowshed of all those breathing cattle with a common goal – survival.” I ask Rijneveld if they can relate to Jas’s optimism. “I’m always looking for the better parts of life, and the better parts of myself. I tend to make New Year’s resolutions all year round, not just in January. They don’t always come out, but I always resolve to write more, and that one does work. I’m hopeful about that.”
The Discomfort of Evening is out on March 19
Photography assistant Guillaume Mercier, special thanks De Zonnewitjzer farm