Most week-nights, Hubby and I cuddle up in front of the TV for an hour before bedtime. Topical comedy shows mostly, or sporting highlights, although we sometimes stumble across a drama series on iPlayer, which is how we got into Wallander – the British TV series adapted from Swedish novelist Henning Manning’s novels starring Kenneth Branagh.
If you’re not familiar with this particular series, let’s just say it’s beautifully shot, cleverly written and bleak – Eastenders-level bleak though with more style and fewer Cockneys. In series one Detective Wallander is a lonely divorcee, with difficult relationships with his father, who has Alzheimer’s, and his daughter; by the fourth and final series Wallander is struggling with his own Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The Discomfort of Evening arguably channels the same Nordic Noir spirit, though the author, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, is Dutch and the central character isn’t a grizzled detective but a 10 year old girl called Jas. The novel won the 2020 International Booker Prize.
It begins with a tragic accident: Jas’s elder brother, Matthies, goes skating on a frozen lake, falls through the ice, and drowns. Jas thinks she’s to blame. Earlier that evening, thinking her farmer father is planning on killing her rabbit for Christmas dinner in two days’ time, she prays God will “take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit.”
Christmas is cancelled. The Christmas tree is taken down and dumped outside and the Christmas food is given to their next door neighbour, “two days of Christmas that were given away in pans and empty Russian salad tubs”.
For Jas this is “when the emptiness begins” mirroring “the empty place at the table”. She decides she “wouldn’t have to lose anything I wanted to keep from now on”. Her behaviour becomes increasingly strange. She won’t poo, preferring to hold it in. She won’t take off her coat. She pushes a pin into her navel, as she once saw her teacher stick a pin into a map of the world, and doesn’t take it out because “one day I’d like to go to myself”.
Her mother is too lost in her own grief to notice or even touch her. Her father tries to find solutions without understanding the cause: “soap in your bum hole” to get her shitting again (“a tried and tested method” for cows apparently); putting the coat-wearing obsession down to self-consciousness about “molehills growing under it”.
Despite her behaviour, which also includes destructiveness and animal cruelty (usually instigated by her younger brother, Obbe), the first-person narrative meant I never lost sympathy with Jas. We see the world through her eyes.
The building sense of dread as the story progresses is almost hypnotic. You just know things will not end well.
Rating: ** Worth reading.