I thought Tyll was extraordinary. When I learned it lost the 2020 International Booker Prize to The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, I immediately read Discomfort. One Goodreads review said something to the effect of “Trigger Warning: All of them,” but I ignored it. Winners of literary awards are often very “literary.” I expected any discomfort to be dressed with fancy metaphors to the point of being unrecognizable. They aren’t. So here’s a rare trigger warning from me: There are graphic scenes involving the torture of animals, self mutilation, incest, and sexual assault. There is also excessive talk of excrement, but they’ll take away my lit degree if I don’t clarify that Jas’s constipation is a metaphor for grief.
Jas lives on her family’s farm in the Netherlands. When she realizes that her father’s sudden generosity toward her favorite rabbit means it’s about to be Christmas dinner, she prays: “. . . and I asked God if He please couldn’t take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. ‘Amen.'” (Loc 195) Her brother drowns while ice skating, leaving his parents and three siblings behind.
The effects on the family are immediate. Jas becomes constipated, her mother stops eating, and the siblings enact increasingly disturbing sacrifices to keep the remaining family intact. Wherever possible, sex and death are mentioned; Jas’s mother can’t even purse her lips without them being “shut, like mating slugs.” Jas is obsessed with sex and death—she tries to coax a pair of toads to mate, and obsesses over her parents’ marriage. She believes that her mother will eat again only when she resumes her sex life with Jas’s father. Her worries soon become obsessive:
Now that Mum has got thinner and her dresses baggier, I’m afraid she’ll die soon and that Dad will go with her. I follow them about all day so that they can’t suddenly die and disappear. I always keep them in the corner of my eye, like the tears for Matthies. And I never switch off the light globe on my bedside table until I’ve heard Dad’s snores, and the bedsprings creaking twice. Mum always rolls from left to right before she finds the right fit. Then I lie in the light of the North Sea, waiting for it to go quiet. But when they go to visit friends in the village in the evenings and Mum shrugs when I ask what time they’ll be back, I lie for hours staring at the ceiling. Then I imagine how I’ll cope as an orphan and what I’ll tell the teacher about the cause of their deaths.” (Loc 534-541)
All the children have rituals. Jas refuses to remove her coat, collecting a variety of mementos in her pockets. Her surviving brother bangs his head on his bed so often that he has bruises and Jas wonders if he’s damaged his brain. Brain damage would be one reason for what ultimately happens. There are extended scenes of him killing animals, and graphic scenes where the siblings engage in sexual acts. One passage in particular makes this novel difficult to review, because it’s such a shocking scene of sexual abuse that it prohibits me from recommending the book. I’ve read books where terrible things happen, but the level of detail in Discomfort sets it apart. Sexual abuse is common in literature, but I’m struggling to think of another book where it’s depicted so graphically. Add to this that the side plots are primarily their mother’s slow starvation, a hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak among the cows, and Jas’s constipation—the book is almost overwhelmingly bleak. Worse, it becomes repetitive and even tedious on occasion.
This leaves the essential question: Does a book have to be likable to be good?
- No: Not everything is to everyone’s taste. Discussions of grief are important and universal. The writing is solid; I’d read another book by this author provided it’s on a different subject.
- Yes: Is it wrong to expect some level of enjoyment while reading? Life is too short (and TBRs too long) to read books that don’t offer a measure of enjoyment.
Overall: 2.9 (out of 5.0) I’m tempted to leave it unrated alongside The Gathering and Blood Meridian. (As I think on it, these books are good company for each other.) This means I don’t technically recommend it, but the few points it has are all down to writing, which is original and clever at times.
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