Grief under the microscope

This book is an eulogy for loss, for the hunger to be seen and loved.
Last Updated : 30 October 2021, 20:15 IST

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It is an unescapable fact that some books draw you into the story gently, while others take hold of you and plunge you into its pages in one deep dunk. The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s coming-of-age story of a 10-year-old Dutch girl, is one of the latter. But be warned, this book is not the most comfortable read. The story is intricately wrapped in foreboding and the language is unembellished, helping to balance the stark, devastating context.

By the first 12 pages, the reader gets a measure of the Mulder family, dairy farmers who live in a quiet little village, with the lights of the other place, aka the city, twinkling either as a tantalising temptation to those who yearn to go across, or as a dire warning to those who have heard of the sins rampant out there.

Make no doubt about it, our protagonist Jas definitely wants to make the crossing and moreover, is quietly determined to do so. There is much external quiet to her life and routine: helping her father muck out the cowshed and tend to the cattle and chickens, going to church with the family on Sunday to hear Reverend Renkema deliver the sternest admonitory sermons (the family is part of the Reformed Church, Christians who practice their religion very, very seriously), going ice-skating on the frozen lake in winter, fooling around with her brothers Matthies and Obbe, and sister Hanna.

A slow fall-apart

We enter the lives of the Mulder family at a tragic juncture: they have lost Matthies to the lake, when the ice suddenly cracked and he fell into the deep. Slowly, without fuss or fanfare, the family falls apart, each member grieving in their own particular way, until all of them have plummeted into a vortex they can’t or don’t want to climb out of.

Dad Mulder slumps into despondency but tries to throw himself into his work. Mum Mulder’s internal chaos quickly breaches her external barriers and the reader watches her become a wreck. Obbe, the surviving son, develops a sadistic edge to his nature, and of course the guinea pigs are his sisters. Hanna retreats into her own escape world and it is Jas who tries — and fails — to be the fulcrum to this family.

This is definitely the voice of a child and an authentic one, even though the precocious and fiercely intelligent Jas does tend to sound older than her 12 years in the concluding parts of the story. Think Scout Finch (of To Kill A Mockingbird), very clever, with the tendency to question what she doesn’t understand. Only, this is a Dutch Scout who doesn’t have the luxury of family as support, sustenance or even bulwark against a cruel uncaring world.

Jas Mulder has a phobia of germs and bacteria, suffers from terrible stomach-related problems, and doesn’t help matters any with her small acts of self-harming. She has coat issues: she will not take off the mouldy red coat she wears to school, to church, at home, everywhere. She also has all the fears attendant on children (fear of death/water/bacteria) but they are given an edge of desperate poignancy because of the circumstances of the Mulder family.

As the parents become too wrapped up in their misery and apathy to observe what is happening to their surviving children, it is the reader who aches for the kids, who wants to reach out to them, reassure them, try and keep them safe till their parents wake from their stupor.

Especially when Jas wistfully ruminates that her mother passed around a damp flannel after dinner for them to clean their ketchup mouths, maybe as a veiled attempt to give the kids a goodnight kiss.

There isn’t much humour that leavens this story; as Jas says, there is nothing here to smile about.

The book is an eulogy for loss, for the hunger to be seen, loved, an eulogy that refuses to be slotted into rhyme or metre, but affects the reader in more ways than one. Michele Hutchinson’s seamlessly fluid translation allows the English-reading populace to read The Discomfort… and understand just why it won the 2020 Booker Prize.

Published 30 October 2021, 19:31 IST

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