Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s award-winning novel has got under my skin. Set on a dairy farm in a Dutch Reformist community, it is on one level the story of a family grieving the death of their eldest son. On another it is an ancient, mythic battle between the forces of good and evil, life and death, light and death. Fitting then that much of feels like it takes place in a kind of half light, the evening alluded to in the title. Nightfall after all is a spectral time, when the boundaries between worlds thin.
Narrated by 12-year-old Jas Mulder, the novel begins with the death of her older brother Matthies, who falls into a frozen lake shortly before Christmas in the early 2000s. Such a death is of course ruinous, but it becomes a fixation for the Mulder family, settling over the household like a shroud (“Death has its own coathook here,” Jas says). Her other brother Obbe develops a sadistic obsession with death; her younger sister Hanna dreams of escaping. Their mother stops eating and begins to waste away, while their father – a strong, silent type – seems unable to properly confront it. All the while the family must continue the day-to-day drudgery of managing the farm, with further tragedy in store. Although I haven’t watched it (and probably won’t ever!), it reminded me of what people say about Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist and its depiction of parental grief, or the film Hereditary (which I have watched, from behind a pillow).
Jas seems to believe herself responsible for Matthies death. On the night in question, she made a deal with God – spare her favourite rabbit, destined for Christmas dinner, and take her brother instead. She shares a birthday with Hitler, and obsesses over whether she is evil. She also imagines her mother is hiding Jewish people in the basement (it’s not super clear how this fits in the narrative, apart from alluding to the horrors in Europe’s recent history). While she may, as her teacher notes, suffer from an “overactive imagination”, she is intuitive about things her family seem blind to. She’s a wonderful, unpredictable character, at times sweet, at others almost sinister.
This novel is a lot about who gets saved or not, and why. I suspect this comes from the Dutch Reformist Church, which the Mulders belong to, which emphasises predestination, or the idea that our fates are sealed before birth. But that doesn’t leave very much room for our own agency, and there’s the age-old problem of why God would punish those who are seemingly the most innocent like Matthies. It is these questions that the Mulder children take up, in their gruesome investigations of animals and each other. Scenes of the children’s sexual experimentation with each other are truly discomforting (there’s that title again!), and some will no doubt find them too much. But I think ultimately they serve a purpose in a tale of the ruinous power of death and grief, and the supernatural strength it requires to overcome them and keep on living.
I’m curious at the role animals play in this story. Not just cows, but toads, rabbits, butterflies, moles and one poor hamster. They seem more than a setting. Writers like JM Coetzee have drawn a link between how we treat animals and how we treat others. It’s well-known that serial killers often mistreat animals in their youth. And more broadly, our mass consumption of animal products drives cruelty that would be unbearable if it weren’t hidden in farms where it is illegal for outsiders to expose what goes on. The farming scenes in the novel seem to pose the question: does our use of animals inure us to evil, or simply reveal something fundamental about life? That violent, visceral language of the farm – of sex and death, feed and shit – is deeply entwined in Jas’ voice.
And what a voice. Naive, maybe a bit possessed, I was transfixed by Lucas’ writing:
When someone stands or lies too close I get the feeling that I have to admit something, that I have to justify my presence: I’m here because Mum and Dad believed in me and from that thought I could be born – even though they’ve been having doubts recently and they’re paying less attention to us. There are creases in my clothes. I’m crumpled like screwed-up shopping list in the bin, waiting for someone to smooth me out and read me again.
It’s a book that does what it says. Uncomfortable, dark, I admired the grim spell it casts.
Gay rating: 1/5 for Jas’s fantasies of Dutch TV host Dieuwertje Blok.