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The God in the Attic

Fintan Calpin

The Discomfort of Evening, by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Faber & Faber, 288 pp,, £12.99, ISBN: 978:0571349364

Ten-year-old Jas is wrapped up in protective layers. Her mother smothers her and her siblings “in udder ointment to protect us from the cold” and puts freezer bags on the breakfast table to wear over their socks. She will not remove her red coat, despite her parents’ many pleas, threats and protestations. The best part of Duo Penotti is “when Mum pulled off the protective paper”. Jas wants “to keep everyone safe indoors” and put a freezer bag over her eldest brother's head, “so that he'd stay warm for a long time, the seal closed around his neck”. Protection inspires disgust and fear, filling Jas “with horror, just like the reeking ointment on my skin”. And yet she craves, ever more deeply as it is withdrawn throughout the book, the protective magic of her parents’ callous attentions: “Mum pressed her fat fingers into our faces like the round cheeses she patted to check whether the rind was ripening.”

“Ripening” is an apt word to describe the fascinating and inexorable feeling with which this story develops. After her brother Matthies dies falling through the ice in a skating accident, Jas tries to mend her grief-stricken family with an array of experiments, spells and rituals. Things continue to deteriorate as her parents are estranged from each other and their children, who spiral into a violently obsessive quest to unlock the mysteries of their brother’s death. The novel also concerns Jas’s negotiation of puberty and her emerging sexuality in a world governed by family trauma, religious conservatism and the economic exigencies of farming.

The Discomfort of Evening is the debut novel by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Dutch poet who grew up in a Reformed farming family in North Brabant. As an adult, Rijneveld, who uses the pronoun they, moved to Utrecht where they now work as a writer and part-time dairy farmer. Discomfort was the follow up to a poetry collection Kalfsvlies (Calf's Caul) and sold over 50,000 copies in the Netherlands. It was snapped up by Faber in a three-way auction and has since been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Arabic translations are all forthcoming.

Much of the attention given to this novel has been directed at the way Rijneveld folds their own life into their fiction. Speaking to The Guardian, they were open about their use of writing as a means of processing their own brother’s death during their early childhood, as well as the difficulties this poses for family relationships (their parents still haven’t read the book). They also discuss their literal sense of God’s presence in the home (“I was convinced He was living in the attic”) and their morbid fascination with sharing a birthday with Adolf Hitler, all of which finds direct and indirect expression in the novel.

And yet, autofiction seems to be simply another layer of ambiguity in which Rijneveld’s text wraps itself. This is a novel structured through startling equivalences and imaginative transferences. Jas’s coat is a veil of ambivalence for her identity and a shield from the cold grasp of grief. She first puts it on as she leaves her embalmed brother’s side, worrying he might “thaw in [her] absence”. Refusing to remove the coat, Jas begins to stuff its pocket with totemic items: it accrues dirt and meaning.

The world Rijneveld builds transcends sensuousness, and abounds in metaphysical subtleties. Simile and metaphor are its guiding principles, and belong as much to the authorial voice as to Jas’s comparative imagination: 

He [Dad] strides back through the door, slamming it behind him. Anger has hinges that need oiling. For a moment Mum pretends to continue with her work, but then she begins to sigh and goes to make coffee all the same. Everything here is a maths sum: respect equals four sugar lumps and a shot of condensed milk. I quickly stuff the cheese scoop into my pocket with all my memories.

The transference of meaning in this metaphorical imaginary finds its mirror in the magical thinking of Jas and her siblings. While her parents interpret bad events as plagues and divine retribution, their children are “three kings” seeking a star. They turn to rituals, fetish objects and “sacrifices” of increasing violence. Jas enacts her wishes through a sympathetic logic of likenesses: she keeps two toads in a bucket under her desk knowing that if they mate her estranged parents will too.

In a small and disconnected Reformed community, the limits of Jas’s world are spatially demarcated by “the other side” – the term the kids use for the world beyond the town. That Matthies died attempting to skate to “the other side” intensifies its mythopoiesis. Rijneveld's book obsesses over the domestic sphere: sex, bodies, food, sleep, shit, clothes, cleanliness and dirt. Within this strictly delineated sphere, Jas wrests control where she can: when her mother stops eating, Jas follows her sympathetic logic and stops pooing: that way “I wouldn't have to lose anything I wanted to keep from now on”. Jas’s father responds with the same cold pragmatism he bears towards all his livestock, and pokes chunks of green soap up Jas’s anus as a laxative.

The astonishing achievement of Rijneveld’s writing is its construction of a world of metaphor and simile which is punctured and disrupted by the real – a world in which God might live in the attic. The Discomfort of Evening is the work of a poet, for whom the sensuousness of the material world is a reminder that to compare is to distort; that ripening is decay.

1/4/2020

Fintan Calpin is a writer and postgraduate student in contemporary literature at King’s College London. He lives in South London.

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