Vol. 110 (2021)

Jay Fox On: Marleke Lucas Rijneveld’s 
The Discomfort of Evening 

By Jay Fox

Brooklyn, NY, USA


2020 has been a deeply disturbing, exhausting, and even grotesque year. In the United States, we’ve had to endure the horrors of the pandemic in conjunction with an election that has seen the Republican Party fully commit not only to a cult of personality that swears allegiance to a failed casino owner and former reality star who played a billionaire on television, but to encourage its most selfish and reckless impulses in an echo chamber that long ago stopped corroborating its narrative with reality. The “adults in the room” tasked with keeping the Trump administration and the GOP from disaster are long gone, and we’re now held hostage by a news cycle that is sounding less and less like plot points in Wall Street or All the President’s Men and more and more like those from Lord of the Flies.


This was the background noise going on while I was reading Marleke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening (translated from the original Dutch (2018) by Michele Hutchinson). Ignoring updates about Supreme Court decisions and Attorney General Bill Barr’s being forced from his post, I was transported to a Dutch dairy farm in the early 2000s where I had the opportunity to follow the emotional and psychological deterioration of a deeply religious family in the wake of the death of their oldest child, Matthies, in an ice-skating accident. It is not merely a meditation on grief or its many manifestations, but a study on the ways that grief exacerbates existing family dysfunctions.


Several other factors influence the dysfunction of the Mulders, the family at the center of the novel. First, the three remaining children—Obbe, Jas, and Hanna—are either just beginning to wrestle with puberty or are deep in its throes. Second, the Mulders are devout members of the extremely traditional Dutch Reformed Church. Third, both the mother and the father effectively check out following the death of Matthies. Finally, they may live on a small dairy farm in a relatively insular community that is cut off from the world by the same lake in which Matthies drowned, but they still own a television and have access to the internet. Put all these ingredients together and you have the general premise of the novel: three neglected kids who are deeply confused about everything from sex to death to the Holocaust, lack access to reliable information, are stuck in a claustrophobic farmhouse, and are struggling to make sense of an unnecessarily cruel world. To make sense of it, the children, particularly Jas and Hanna, rely on various rituals that they create and invoke to keep their parents from separating or to prevent Death from taking anyone else away.


This may sound cute, and it could have been. Another writer may have taken a similar premise and woven a tale of wonder about the magical ways that children view the world. Maybe they really have the power, maybe it’s all make-believe. Who knows?

Jay Fox

This isn’t that kind of book. Rijneveld’s characters do employ childlike reasoning, but the results are perverse and strange. Furthermore, the narrator, Jas (who is 10 at the beginning of the novel and 12 at the end), at least partially believes that the power of her prayer can have an impact in the real world, and she struggles with a gnawing sense of guilt because she asked God to take her brother rather than her pet rabbit, Dieuwertje, at the very opening of the book. Had she not prayed for Dieuwertje’s safety, the family would have likely eaten it for Christmas dinner. Instead, Matthies fell through the ice, he died, and everyone was too sad to eat.


The ritualization begins at this point, and it begins with Jas refusing to take off her red jacket. It is her security blanket. Soon the rituals become a bit stranger. Jas keeps two toads in her room and hopes that if she can just get them to mate, then her psychologically shattered mother and emotional black hole of a father will remain together. Her and Hanna also describe imaginative ways how their parents could die as if the verbalization of these gruesome deaths could prevent them from really happening. Jas even manages to demonstrate the supernatural ability to hold her bowel movements for the vast majority of the book. “I could hold in my poo. I wouldn’t have to lose anything I wanted to keep from now on,” Jas tells herself.


Then there are some rituals that dive into the realm of the sadistic. These include scenes that involve animal torture, the sodomization of a dairy cow with a cheese scoop, and the sodomization of a young girl with an artificial insemination gun designed for cattle. There’s also some light incest.


It wasn’t exactly the kind of escape that I was looking for, nor was it a particularly enjoyable read. The plot is pretty much just a laundry list of horrible things happening as Jas and her sister fantasize about a rescuer who will one day arrive to the farm and take them away from its stench of shit and death. It is not a page-turner, nor is it for the faint of heart.


However, Rijneveld’s terse and often macabre prose does create a lasting impression, especially in how compellingly they (Rijneveld’s preferred pronoun) describe childhood neglect through Jas’ eyes. One may be tempted to feel as though Jas has dissociated her emotions to shield herself from the trauma or that her emotional flatness is yet another manifestation of the family’s overall dysfunction. However, in most cases it seems as though she may actually be too na├»ve to understand the severity of what is happening around her. Especially with respect to sexuality, all three children have been largely sheltered from influences beyond the church and raised in an emotionally barren household (even if they seem to understand the basic mechanics of sex very well), so anything that might be considered normal is outside of their vocabulary.


More importantly, many of Jas’ experiences may be deeply disturbing to the reader, but she seems largely oblivious to their full perversity. After all, she is still a child. We as adult readers are impregnating these stories with their full, social meaning while she is simply and unemotionally conveying events as they unfold. On the one hand, this gives the imagery and the language a fresh, even visceral, presence. On the other, it means these stories of childhood trauma are told without any acknowledgment of how deeply disturbing they are. Rijneveld is certainly aware of their shock value, but Jas the character is not because she has not separated herself from them. These experiences are not scars with individual or collective mythologies. Rather, they are like wounds that were so recently opened that her brain has yet to process the pain. 


I’ll be honest: This is a bleak novel. It is dark, unsettling, graphic, and Rijneveld occasionally takes the relentless depravity to places where it doesn’t need to go. Despite this, it is a beautifully composed, if monstrous novel, that captures the vulnerabilities of adolescence in a way that is brutal, discomforting, and deeply engrossing.




Jay Fox    



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.