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A Dark Debut Propels a Dutch Writer to Reluctant Fame

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is an author who confides in their reader, rather than family or friends. “I am a private person,” the writer, who identifies as male and uses the pronouns they and them, said on a recent video call from their home in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

“I wake up early every day and, after breakfast, immediately start writing,” Rijneveld said. Their fears and desires, they added, all get channeled into their work: “I don’t tell a lot of people around me about my secrets.”

Rijneveld’s novel “The Discomfort of Evening” became a best seller in the Netherlands when it was published there in 2018, and, unusually for a work of Dutch literature, it is also enjoying success abroad. The book has already been published in English in Britain, and will be released in the United States in September. German, French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Korean translations are also available, or in the works.

Last month, “The Discomfort of Evening” became the first Dutch novel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Six books were announced as in the running for the annual translated literature award, with winner to be revealed in May. But, in a statement on April 20, the prize’s British organizers postponed the prize-giving until an unspecified date in the summer, “to ensure that readers are able to get hold of copies of the shortlisted books.” (Book stores, like many businesses in Britain, are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Rijneveld, 29, has published two anthologies of poetry, but “The Discomfort of Evening” is their debut novel. Set on a dairy farm in the Netherlands in the early 2000s, it tells the story of Jas, a 10-year-old girl who grapples with grief and a loss of religious faith after her older brother dies in an ice skating accident. Jas watches as her brother’s death sends the family into a spiral: Her father grows emotionally distant; her mother experiences an episode of psychosis; and her siblings, whose sexual desires are awakening with puberty, begin exploring each other’s bodies and abusing animals on the farm.

Michele Hutchison, who translated the novel from Dutch to English, said in a telephone interview that she found it hard working on the book’s “more gruesome” passages. “When you translate, the words come out of your fingers like you’re living them,” she said. Some scenes involving incest were particularly difficult, she added: “I’d tend not to do those passages at the end of the day, in case I would get nightmares.”

Rijneveld was raised in a strict Protestant household in Nieuwendijk, a village about 50 miles south of Amsterdam. Like the characters in “The Discomfort of Evening,” Rijneveld’s parents were dairy farmers; the author was 3 when their 12-year-old brother was struck and killed by a bus on his way to school.

“When somebody dies in a family, you see one of two things happen,” Rijneveld said. “Either the family grows closer or it falls apart. As a child, I could see that ours was starting to fall apart.”

Some of the parallels between the book and their brother’s death caused a rift in Rijneveld’s family, they said. When the novel was published in the Netherlands, “the entire village talked about it,” Rijneveld added. “My family and I are very different. They didn’t grow up with stories or literature, so it’s difficult for them to understand that, in a book like my novel, not everything needs to be true.”

Rijneveld’s mother has read the book, they said, but their father hasn’t. “I gave my parents words for their grief that they might not have chosen themselves,” the writer said. (Lize Spit, a Belgian writer who is friends with Rijneveld, said Rijneveld was no longer in contact with their family.)

Rijneveld said that since they were a child, their gender was always ambiguous. They preferred wearing boy’s clothes, they said, and, on the first day of high school, when they were still known as “Marieke,” a classmate asked if they were a boy or a girl. “I didn’t know,” Rijneveld said. “I hadn’t thought about it.”

They were bullied, they said, for looking like a tomboy, and so dressed “more and more like a girl” to fit in. At 19, Rijneveld left school and the family home to study teaching at college in Utrecht.

There, they discovered the work of the Dutch writer and artist Jan Wolkers. Wolkers’s writing is known in the Netherlands for its frank emotions and explicit sex scenes, which led to mixed reviews in Dutch media in the 1960s. Rijneveld said they were struck by the similarities between Wolkers’s life and their own: They both grew up in the Reformed Church, loved animals and had brothers who died. “I knew I wanted to write like him,” Rijneveld said.

At 23, they changed their name from Marieke to “Marieke Lucas,” adding the name of a childhood imaginary friend. “I asked myself if I wanted to be a boy, a girl, or something in between,” they said. “I decided I wanted to be in between.”

A year later, in 2015, shortly after Rijneveld’s 24th birthday, the Dutch publisher Atlas Contact released Rijneveld’s first collection of poetry, “Kalfsvlies,” published in English as “Calf’s Caul.”

Sarah Timmer Harvey, who translated the poems, said in an email exchange that Rijneveld’s voice was “naïve, and full of unexpected wisdom,” adding that the world they created was “unlike anything I’ve encountered in Dutch literature.”

Many of the themes in Rijneveld’s poetry, like religion and childhood trauma, are explored further in “The Discomfort of Evening.” Simon(e) Van Saarloos, a Dutch writer and commentator on L.G.B.T. issues, said that the book had been so successful in the Netherlands because it gave new perspectives on themes explored regularly in Dutch literature by older, gender-conforming writers. “It speaks to a traditional storytelling of the Netherlands within a small village: the repressive experience of religion and how that represses sexual expression,” she said in a telephone interview.

Rijneveld said that, as a child, religion had given structure and meaning to their life, but, as they got older, it became less important. “I grew up with God, and you’re taught as a child to tell God everything that’s on your mind that you’re struggling with,” they said. “I’m trying to do the same thing by writing that I did as a child by praying: hoping, desiring and asking for some relief.”

Since the Netherlands went into lockdown in March, life has changed for Rijneveld: Scheduled book tours have been put on hold; their afternoon ritual of feeding the cows at a farm on the outskirts of Utrecht has stopped. “Now I know much more what loneliness can be like, and that it’s important to invest in human contact,” Rijneveld said.

“A lot of writers struggle with that,” they added. “I’m certainly one of them.”

Claire Moses contributed reporting and translation assistance.

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