The Weekend Australian - Review
A PAIR OF RAGGED CLAWS
I think Tim Winton is one of the greatest living writers. Yet I do remember, when I first started reading him, feeling discomfited by his treatment, so to speak, of defecation. Writing about people sitting on the toilet is naturalistic, I suppose, but it’s a case where I’d prefer to keep the door closed.
I later discovered I was not alone. Reviewing The Riders for The London Review of Books in 1995, the English novelist Jonathan Coe opened with: “Tim Winton’s new novel is full of shit. There are references to it every three or four pages ...” He went on to deliver a glowing review, and rightly so: fundamentally speaking The Riders is a fine novel.
This came to mind as I read The Discomfort of Evening (Faber & Faber, 289pp, $29.99), by the young Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchinson, which won the International Man Booker Prize on August 26.
The central character, Jas Mulder, has constipation throughout. She is 10 when the novel opens and 12 when it ends. She is growing up, as the 29-year-old author did, on a dairy farm in The Netherlands, her family devout members of the Reformed church. There’s a porcelain Jesus in the hall “that was as big as Dad”.
The novel opens with Jas and her brothers Matthies and Obbe and sister Hanna being covered with udder ointment to protect them from the cold. They then sit down to a breakfast that will take any reader’s appetite away.
This is a novel with a deep and sustained interest in the body — human and animal — and its basic functions. There is a lot of defecating (except by Jas), anus-prodding, urinating, nose-picking, snot-eating, blood-letting, penis-waving and semen-spreading (by bulls and boys). Jas keeps a bucket of toads in her bedroom.
When the father decides to deal with Jas’s constipation — “I’m lying on my side on the brown leather settee like a breech calf, looking back at my father ... ‘Open wider,’ Dad roars” — it makes Tim Winton seem genteel.
Readers may read this scene and think about child sexual abuse. Later in the novel they may think about incest. They may also think about suicide, matricide and patricide. They may wonder if there’s a limit to the requirement to honour thy father and thy mother.
I had all of these thoughts, and yet as much as I at times wanted to close the door I left it open. I read the novel in a sitting. I needed to know how it would turn out.
The moment that sets up the story is when Jas, certain her father is fattening her pet rabbit, named Dieuwertje after a TV star, for the Christmas dinner plate, asks God “if He please couldn’t take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. Amen”.
Matthies, the eldest, is out ice skating and he does not return. His death beneath the cracked ice destroys the family. “I have discovered,’’ Jas thinks, “that there are two ways of losing your belief: some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves.’’ In time, the village moves past the tragedy. “My brother is slowly fading out of various minds, while he moves more and more into ours.”
Then, blow upon the never-healing bruise, comes financial ruin due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Only Jas knows about her prayer. She pays attention at school, so she knows about the Jews, Anne Frank, and Adolf Hitler.
“I wonder for a moment whether Hitler would have told his mum what he was planning and that he was going to make a mess of it. I haven’t told anyone that I prayed for Dieuwertje to survive. Could the tenth plague be my fault?’’
Jas retreats into her red coat, never taking it off, shrinking further into it as the cover illustration suggests. “You’re just like Anne Frank,’’ a friend tells her. “You’re in hiding.”
Her parents shut down. Jas notices her father’s overalls are full of burn holes from his cigarettes, “as though being here was suffocating him and he needed more air holes”. When the local vet asks Jas how she is feeling, the first person to do so, she thinks of Neil Armstrong and the moon landing. “Maybe the vet’s an astronaut too and someone will finally take the trouble to see how much life is left in me.” Yet there’s also a feeling that the vet is a bit creepy.
The author, who identifies as male and female and uses the pronouns they and their, still works on a dairy farm. The novel was partly inspired by the death of their own brother.
Jas and her younger sister Hanna know they need to escape, “to get away from this village, away from the cows, away from death, away from life in its original form”.
I will not reveal the ending, but it is chilling.