Inspired by the death of the author’s brother as a child, The Discomfort of Evening, written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison, has won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The £50,000 prize will be split equally between the two.
Rijneveld, 29, is the youngest author to win the prize. They adopted the name Lucas, originally the name of their imaginary friend, to represent their identity as non-binary. The Dutch author grew up in a Reformed farming family in North Brabant before moving to Utrecht and, alongside their writing career, Rijneveld still works on a dairy farm. Rijneveld has already won awards for both their first poetry collection Calfskin and The Discomfort of Evening, which won the prestigious ANV Debut Prize.
Following a stint as an editor, Michele Hutchison became a literary translator from Dutch. Her translations include the bestselling An American Princess by Annejet van der Zijl, Mona in Three Acts by Griet op de Beeck and Seaweed by Miek Zwamborn. She is also co-author of The Happiest Kids in the World.
The Discomfort of Evening tells the story of Jas and her devout farming family in a strict Christian community in rural Netherlands. One winter’s day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip. Resentful at being left alone, she attempts to bargain with God, pitting the life of her pet rabbit against that of her brother; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, exacerbated by the foot-and-mouth-outbreak which requires the destruction of their herd, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.
Barry Pierce, in his Irish Times review, called The Discomfort of Evening “a strong debut. Rijneveld’s poetic prose, eloquently translated by Michele Hutchison, clashes and rattles against the horrors it describes, a constant fight between terror and beauty. It is a novel that does its best to make sure you won’t forget it anytime soon.”
Pierce likened Jas to Benny, the disturbed child protagonist of Michael Haneke’s 1992 film Benny’s Video, and identified the novel as part of a “trend for novels and stories that focus on, to put it plainly, grotesque characters written about grotesquely. Perhaps the urtext of this trend is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen.”
The Discomfort of Evening was chosen from a shortlist of six books by five judges, chaired by Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature and spoken word at Southbank Centre. The panel also includes: Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France’s centre for international writing; Man Booker International Prize-winning translator and writer Jennifer Croft; Booker Prize longlisted author Valeria Luiselli and writer, poet and musician Jeet Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.
Hodgkinson said: “We set ourselves an immense task in selecting a winner from our superb shortlist, filled with fiction bold enough to upend mythic foundations and burst the banks of the novel itself. From this exceptional field, and against an extraordinary backdrop, we were looking for a book that goes beyond echoing our dystopian present and possesses a timeless charge. Combining a disarming new sensibility with a translation of singular sensitivity, The Discomfort of Evening is a tender and visceral evocation of a childhood caught between shame and salvation, and a deeply deserving winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize.
“Rijneveld’s language renders the world anew, revealing the shocks and violence of early youth through the prism of a Dutch dairy farm. The strangeness of a child looking at the strangeness of the world.”
Rijneveld’s 12-year-old brother was knocked down and killed by a bus when they were three. In an interview with Dazed, they said: “I knew early on that I wanted to write about my brother. But it hurts my family to write what I want to write. My father hasn’t read (the novel). My mother has. I did have to tell them that they weren’t the parents in the novel. My parents never talked about their loss, so it was hard for them that their own child had started to talk about it.”
The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in Britain or Ireland. The judges considered 124 books, translated from 30 languages.
The other shortlisted books were The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous; The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh; Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin; Hurricane Seasonby Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes; The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder.