An Award-Winning Debut Novel About Innocence Shattered Offers Terror and Solace

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There is the matter of the toads. I would like to extend a personal apology to all toads.

It’s not the violence that feels so shocking — it’s the innocence. The violence in the book is visited on small bodies, mute bodies, by those who are themselves small, young, lacking in language. Jas’s narration might be rich with metaphors — but almost all of them are bovine. She finds corollaries only in the world of the cows; she cannot tether herself to anything human. As the Mulder parents retreat into grief, their children are left alone to invent their own rules, their own cosmology. They cross ordinary borders of decency in wild confusion. The blurring of victim and perpetrator is complex, complete, difficult to bear.

However strong your readerly constitution, it might feel like a peculiar time to pick up a book so mournful and gory. And yet, I went to it every day without dread, with, in fact, a gratitude that surprised me. It was the gratitude of not being condescended to. Novels disappoint not only by being clumsily written or conceived but by presenting a version of the world that is simpler and more sanitized than we know it to be. Fiction about childhood is especially prone, with a few notable exceptions (the work of Jean Stafford, for example). The spaciousness of Rijneveld’s imagination comes as terror and solace. That lack of squeamishness, that frightening extremity, which, in Hutchison’s clean, calm translation, never feels showy or manipulative, gives full voice to the enormity of the children’s grief, their obscene deprivation.

As with any novel so interested in complicity and repression, there’s a temptation to read “The Discomfort of Evening” as a parable. I was frequently reminded of Michael Haneke’s film “The White Ribbon,” about the savage, secretive rituals of a group of children in a German village before World War I. It’s another excoriation of a punitive Protestantism and familial cycles of violence, which Haneke holds responsible for creating a society vulnerable to fascist ideology. The cowed children of the film enact their humiliations on one another. They will grow up, we understand, to become Nazis. “The Discomfort of Evening” is not nearly so explicit. Jas is studying the Holocaust at school. Her questions and preoccupations gesture at the links between the individual and the collective’s capacity for denial and willed amnesia.

But these are intimations only, embers. We return always to Jas, in her smelly, decidedly non-allegorical coat, filled with toads. We return to her story that feels like a dare — can we face it when even her parents have turned away? Will we succumb to discomfort or will we find in that discomfort a harsh and surprising lesson — the writer’s credo? “Discomfort is pure because it’s when we’re vulnerable,” Rijneveld has said. “It’s when we’re being ourselves instead of pretending to be who we want to be.”

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