I have made it my habit over the last few years to read the Booker Prize winners, the English winner — British, Scottish, Irish or American — as well as the international contender. This year’s choice of English winner has been postponed to include Barack Obama’s memoir, the first volume of which will be on the market Nov. 17.
The international winner is “The Discomfort of Evening” by Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Her title is well chosen: Everyone in the novel is experiencing discomfort, and they share that feeling with the reader. More specifically, it refers to that time in the evening that the cows call out to be milked, their udders heavy. The family of four in this novel cry out as well, each in his or her own way. Only relief is not in sight.
Given the bleakness of the text, I decided to compare it to four runners-up for this year’s prize — all available at our local libraries! They are dark stories for dark times, dealing with conflict and strife: Ethiopians fighting Italians, medieval gentiles fighting Jews, the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, life in a damned Mexican village. Darkest of all, due to the author’s concentration on one family, is the winner, “The Discomfort of Evening.”
Unfulfilled needs rise to the surface as the eldest of the four children, Matthies, goes ice skating and does not return. Jas, his 10-year-old sister, feels guilty because she wanted to go skating with her brother and, denied that, she made a bargain with God: her brother’s life for the preservation of her pet rabbit, which her father has decided will be that year’s Christmas dinner.
Jas belongs to a Christian farming family attending the Dutch Reformed Church. Devout Christians, they attend Sunday services and live by Christian principles, often offering their children Bible quotes as means of explanations or even comfort. Their lives have gone as well as might be expected, tending cows and making cheeses, till the death of the eldest child breaks up the family ties. Everyone is grieving; no one is able to comfort anyone.
Jas’ brother consistently bangs his head against the headboard of his bed and torments small animals, such as flattening a grasshopper against the stable wall using his clog. Her sister sticks her mouth in Jas’ mouth like a “leftover steak that Mum’s warmed up in the microwave,” and otherwise just wants out of there. No one can make contact with anyone else. Jas takes to wearing her red coat at all hours and stuffs her pockets with toads, her theory being that if she can make the toads mate, perhaps her parents will do the same. She has noticed their lack of communicating. They no longer touch one another, which “must mean they don’t mate either.”
The mother cooks, but she can eat less and less and so fades out more and more. The father must attend to his farming, but cows of the entire neighborhood are hit by hoof and mouth disease and must be killed. His way of showing an interest in Jas is by shoving soap up her “bum hole” to cure her constipation.
In school, Jas is studying the Holocaust and somehow she imagines that some Jewish children have sought refuge in their cellar. They remain where they are, as her parents and their quotations remain out of reach and her constipation becomes a metaphor for her condition of grief.
Where no outside source will provide relief of sorrow and bewilderment toward the world, children must find their own way of redemption, as does Jas. The reader is left to keep looking.
• Inga Wiehl is a writer and retired Yakima Valley College English professor. She has a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Washington, and has taught there and at the universities of Utah and Texas. She has written four nonfiction books and writes about books for SCENE in an occasional column.