Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Discomfort of Evening [Book Review]

Hello my loves ... long time no see 😅. I'll start by apologising for my two month absence from the blog. Semester 1 of uni was ... interesting to say the least, and I'll be sure to tell you all about it in my upcoming life updates post.

Now there's no better way to get into blog writing than a good ol' fashioned book review. The book in question I'll be reviewing today is 'The Discomfort of Evening' by the remarkable Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. 

Before I go any further with this review I'm going to mention some content warnings. These may somewhat give away parts of the story, but equally this story is intense and I don't want any unsuspecting readers to be caught off-guard or potentially triggered by the content.

So here goes: this story contains ideas of death, suicide, sexual abuse, animal abuse/death, self-harm, and eating disorders... yeah.

While that content warning may be giving you a serious case of what-the-fuckness about this book, this is a story written through a child's eyes, so these ideas are not as full on as you might expect, but subtly pervading throughout the story. Nothing is handled with insensitivity or misinformation, and if you feel you can handle these subjects the book is so worth the read.

Anyway, I'll come back to these topics when explaining my thoughts after a brief summary of the story. As always, this review will be relatively spoiler free, so I won't be providing an entire synopsis of the book.

A brief summary

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's debut novel is the story of Jas, a 12 year old Dutch girl living with her strict protestant family on their dairy farm in the 90s. They are met with grief and turmoil over the death of their eldest son Matthie, who falls through thin ice when skating and drowns. This particular tragedy is revealed within the first few pages of the book, but further tensions and tragedies occur throughout. As the reader (or listener in my case), we observe Jas' attempt to understand the world around her while religious feelings of guilt permeate all experiences. She must deal with two warring parents, a brother growing increasingly disturbed, a sister in need of protection, and emotions and feelings she doesn't quite understand.

My thoughts

I began this story expecting a coming of age story, and the ending certainly creates ambiguity in whether it is appropriate to label it as such. Regardless of it's genre, 'The Discomfort of Evening' is filled with a matter-of-fact exploration of childhood trauma, mental illness and pre-pubescent exploration of sexuality and the main characters' own morality. It is disturbing and unwavering in it's explicit and straight forward nature surrounding many uncomfortable topics. However, as such topics are narrated through the eyes of a young girl, there is almost a film of naivety and innocence that wraps around each unpleasant experience.

What we may see as self-harm, such as when Jas sticks a drawing pin in her belly button and keeps it there, is not understood as self-harm by Jas, but rather as a way of grounding and self-affirmation. What we may see as sexual abuse, of which there are far too many instances to mention, including an insertion of coke can ring-pulls, or the use of an insemination gun on something that wasn't a cow, the characters are unaware of the implications of these actions, many often beginning as games, or are "consented" to in the name of child-like curiosity and exploration.

Masturbation plays a somewhat large reoccurring role in the story, alongside the accompanying guilt the family's strict religious outlook provides on all bodily functions. Another frequent bodily function mentioned is defecation, or Jas' lack-thereof, but I'll leave that for you to find out yourself. Although it is somewhat uncomfortable to read about sexual exploration and masturbation in reference to two young girls and other minor characters involved, the shield of naivety and curiosity thankfully lessens the discomfort, and in some places it certainly feels like a well-thought out and natural presentation of prepubescent exploration, something which may relate to many readers, though perhaps not quite like the majority of experiences provided in the book. 

There is a general theme of curiosity and confusion aimed towards the adult world, including the dysfunctional relationship of her parents, the believed romantic-healing remedies of sex, though not fully understood as such by Jas, and of which she tries to replicate with toads in a bucket under her bed, and her mother's slow succumbing to an eating disorder and general resentment in her role as a mother and her life in general. Jas can understand these concepts of death and suicide, the opening of the book even starting with a fateful plea that her brother dies instead of her rabbit, who she believed was to be next on the dinner plate. Again, these ideas are brutal and straight-forward, but paired with a more childish commentary, softening the sharp edges, yet making it all the more disturbing.

My review makes it sound like this is a story of constant misery, and in some places it certainly does feel like that, but equally this is a story filled with heart-warming moments, and some genuinely funny parts. It is a beautifully horrible presentation of how grief can affect families, and re-shape the mental state of those involved, particularly of children.

Final thoughts

Would I recommend this book? A hundred times yes. It digs deep emotionally, and provides a profound account of discomfort and misery experienced by a child. Though some parts a little slow, and others a little unrealistic, namely Jas' understanding of complex "adult" issues, but devout belief that her mother is hiding Jews in the basement (the book provides little justification to this thought either), this does not take away from the overwhelming power of Rijneveld's work. Books of such emotional intensity and intelligent introspection are few and far between. There is no feeling of superficiality within this book, and it is easy to see why it was a winner of the international 2020 Booker Prize.

A story with a happy ending? Not really. A story that will make you feel all warm and cozy inside? Nope. A story that will leave you with a beautifully raw and untainted perspective on many of life's experiences? Absolutely.

'The Discomfort of Evening' is easily one of the best books I've read this year, possibly ever, and I highly recommend you read it too, just maybe not when you are eating.

I hope you enjoyed this review and are having a safe and wonderful winter x


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