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A closer look at The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison

A closer look at The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison

It has taken a while – quite a while – but the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has at last been announced: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison. The winners were due to have had their fate revealed back on 19 May but, with bookshops shut and readers unable to get hold of the shortlist, that was delayed. It will have been a long and often agonising wait for Rijneveld and Hutchison – and all the selected authors and translators – but now, finality, closure, and triumph.

The five judges, Ted Hodgkinson (chair), Lucie Campos, Jennifer Croft, Valeria Luiselli and Jeet Thayil, can also finally breathe out and reflect on a job well done: 124 novels read, sifted, discussed, sorted, and rediscussed before settling on a novel that is sure to capture the attention that comes with winning the prize.

Rijneveld’s novel tells the story of a family torn apart by grief. Jas, 10 years old, and angry that her father won’t let her go ice skating with her brother Matthies wishes he would die instead of her rabbit, which she thinks the family is eyeing up for dinner. But then Matthies does die, falling through the ice and drowning. The tragedy, however, is not enough: the family farm is struck by foot and mouth disease necessitating the slaughter of the family’s herd; Jas’s other brother Obbe starts to bash his own head and then animals; her Christian fundamentalist parents become ever more extreme; bodily intrusions are commonplace; her mother washes dirty words out of Jas’s mouth with soap; the games she plays with her surviving brother and sister become increasingly dangerous. Jas tries to will order, calm and restoration on to her broken family but everything falls apart. As one startled review noted: “Discomfort is putting it mildly,” the novel “goes all the way to disturbing.”

The book was born, says the 28-year-old Rijneveld (who uses the pronouns they/them), out of personal experience. Their own brother was run over by a bus aged 12 and died – Rijneveld was three. They lived on a farm and their parents remain strongly religious. When The Discomfort of Evening was published, they say of the local community, “All the shopkeepers and the hairdresser were talking about it, but my family are too frightened to read it.”

When The Discomfort of Evening was first published, it quickly sold a hefty 55,000 copies in the Netherlands and attracted international attention: Rijneveld has received offers of translation into French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Arabic and now, with the prize win, a host of other languages will come into play too. They themselves are not worried that the dark themes of the novel appeal to just one type of sensibility: “there’s always light in darkness, just as there’s always humour in gruesomeness,” they say. “It’s just the way things work. There must always be something to laugh about.” Grief and the naïve brutality of children are universal.

The International Booker Prize is, of course, famously won by both novelist and translator with the £50,000 prize money being split equally. So Michele Hutchison also deserves her time in the limelight. As one of the judges, Valeria Luiselli noted of Hutchison’s translation: “When a book is perceived as a good translation,” she said, “it is perceived as such on the basis of it not seeming like a translation” but as the natural extension of the words as originally written. Hutchison was an invisible translator because the reader can barely sense she is there: really good translators, said Luiselli, don’t “want to stamp their own identity into a book”. Rijneveld’s own tribute to their helpmeet was admirably pithy: without her, they have said, “I wouldn’t have been on the longlist. . . she left the book intact”.

Hutchison found that the task of translating even so unflinching a book brought its own pleasures. “I really love translating poetry and this novel is just filled with it so it,” she has said. “I’ve always had a penchant for child narrators too, they appeal to my own inner lost child. Jas’s way of seeing the world is also strikingly original, the novel really comes to life through all of its vivid imagery.” She is a dab hand at vivid imagery of her own, describing the act of translation as “like being entrusted with the care of another person’s baby, and then being asked to raise it in a different culture”.

Between them, the progenitor and the adoptive mother, they have done an extraordinary job of into life this most unusual and memorable child. Now, with the International Booker Prize endorsement behind it, it is time for them to send The Discomfort of Evening out into the world.