The Weekend Australian - Review

A PAIR OF RAGGED CLAWS

- Stephen Romei Books · London · Netherlands · Calvinism · Anne Frank · Adolf Hitler · Neil Armstrong · Jonathan Coe

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.

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