The 29-year-old Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has become the youngest author ever to win the International Booker prize, taking the award for their “visceral and virtuosic” debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening.
Rijneveld, whose preferred pronouns are they/them, beat titles including Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree to win the £50,000 award for the best fiction translated into English, which will be split equally with their translator, Michele Hutchison. At 29, Rijneveld is the youngest winner of the International Booker, and narrowly older than the youngest Booker winner, Eleanor Catton, who was 28 when she won the 2013 prize for The Luminaries.
A bestseller in the Netherlands, The Discomfort of Evening follows Jas, a girl in a devout Christian farming family, whose brother dies in an accident after she wishes he would die instead of her rabbit. Lost in grief, her family falls apart as she becomes involved in increasingly dangerous fantasies.
Like Jas, Rijneveld grew up in a strict religious community in a rural area of the Netherlands; like Jas, their 10-year-old brother died when they were three. Already an award-winning author in the Netherlands, Rijneveld continues to work on a dairy farm, although not that of their parents. “Farming keeps me grounded. The cows are my best friends; I like cleaning out the stables and shovelling the shit,” they said in an interview earlier this year.
Receiving the prize on Wednesday, Rijneveld said: “I can only say that I am as proud as a cow with seven udders” and called it “a great honour”.
In their acceptance speech, Rijneveld said they wrote the words “be relentless” on the wall above their desk while writing their novel.
“Today, when the world has been turned upside down and is showing its dark side, I often remember those words. So, write, read, win, lose, love each other, but be relentless in this,” they said.
Although the book was published in Dutch in 2018, Rijneveld’s parents had yet to read The Discomfort of Evening, the author told the Guardian in March this year.
“I hope that my parents will read it one day and be proud; that they will understand it’s a novel, it’s not all about them. But it is probably too soon,” Rijneveld said at the time. In April, they told the New York Times that their mother had finally read it.
Rijneveld describes themself not as trans, but as “in between”. “As a small child I felt I was a boy, I dressed like a boy and behaved like a boy, but children at that age are still neutral in their gender. In adolescence, when the separation became clear, I dressed like a girl and became a girl, then at 20 I went back to the boy I was at primary school,” they told the Guardian. “It’s difficult for my parents to understand that I’m not the girl that they raised. It’s not in the Bible.”
Ted Hodgkinson, chair of the International Booker’s judges, said it had been an immense task to choose a winner from an “exceptional” six-strong shortlist, but that the judges were “unanimous in appreciation” for Rijneveld’s “visceral and virtuosic” novel. Altogether, the panel considered 124 books, translated from 30 languages.
The novel “absolutely arrests your attention” from its first page, said Hodgkinson: “There’s something both in the intensity of that creative vision and that perspective of a child, but also the translation, that allows you into that world so immediately and so completely. It’s not a book that you can sit back from.”
He called The Discomfort of Evening “shocking”. “It does deal with some very difficult aspects of life – the sudden death of a brother, a family grieving, some of the more unyielding aspects of a religious upbringing, the quite stark backdrop of a Dutch dairy farm, which can be quite a tough place for a child,” he said.
“And yet, there’s something about the inquisitive gaze, that poetic perspective on those things, the ability to see in the everyday something remarkable, extraordinary. Even though it is a book that takes you through some difficult and unsettling cases, it has that ability to make the world new. And I think that is something, especially in our distracted and unsettled moment, to find fiction that has the ability to absolutely root you where you are in the irreducible truth of another life.”
The International Booker is given every year to a novel or short story collection translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, and has been won in the past by titles including Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth from Arabic, and The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith.
The winner was originally due to be announced on 19 May, but the prize organisers decided to postpone it until the summer due to the severe impact of the coronavirus outbreak on book sales. When the decision to delay the prize was revealed in April, The Discomfort of Evening had then sold fewer than 1,000 copies in the UK – but previous winners of the prize have enjoyed large increases in sales after the Booker announcement.
Hodgkinson, head of literature and the spoken word at Southbank Centre, was joined on this year’s judging panel by Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France’s centre for international writing; Jennifer Croft, who previously won the prize in 2018 for her translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights; author Valeria Luiselli; and writer, poet and musician Jeet Thayil.