My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld review – sordid, troubling… sublime | Lucas Rijneveld

My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld review – sordid, troubling… sublime | Lucas Rijneveld

Dutch author Lucas Rijneveld (formerly Marieke Lucas Rijneveld) won the International Booker prize with his debut, The Discomfort of Evening, narrated by a farmer’s daughter coaxed into sex games with her siblings after their brother dies in a freak accident. There are scenes involving pilfered vials of bull sperm and an insemination gun; the protagonist, aged 12 by the end of the book, fantasises about the tongue of a local vet who tells her how pretty she is. For overseas readers, it evoked “Ian Macabre”-era McEwan, but Rijneveld cited the impact of the transgressive Dutch novelist Jan Wolkers, as well as his own childhood – a girlhood – in a Protestant farming family after the tragic death of his own brother, hit by a bus on the way to school.

Now comes Rijneveld’s second novel, My Heavenly Favourite. A dark mirror to his first book, it’s narrated in torrential run-on sentences by a paedophile livestock vet recounting his manipulation of a client’s 14-year-old daughter in the wake of her brother’s death in a hit-and-run accident. Unfolding over a single summer in 300-odd pages, the book contains just 42 paragraphs and (I’d guess) barely as many full stops – a mark, perhaps, that the protagonist knows no limits.

As he proceeds to detail an escalating series of violations – grimly calculated from the moment he first invites her to share some of his youngest son’s birthday cake, to his climactic promise of a cross-border road trip in search of her estranged mother – the atmosphere is relentlessly sordid, which won’t surprise readers of Rijneveld’s debut. That book’s grubby frisson can be felt in passages in which the narrator relieves the pressure of his thoughts by, say, masturbating into a Mars bar wrapper or a copy of Proust. There’s an element, too, of the earlier novel’s flair for gruesome farce when the narrator’s eldest son starts dating the girl his father is plotting to snare. At one point her own father leaves upkeep of their farm to her older brother, who promptly hosts a rave at which a bull is given MDMA.

Overall, though, this book is a vastly different proposition to Discomfort, and not a novel easily mistaken for gross-out comedy. The whirling delirium of its cyclone-force prose, blending events past and present, actual and imaginary, feared and desired, traps you in a nightmarish vortex; being granted permission to pause for breath after every six or seven pages, following another paragraph-long chapter, feels like an act of mercy (and that’s just for the reader; how must it have been for Michele Hutchison to translate?) As memories of the narrator’s own childhood abuse merge with his enduring horror at the devastating cattle cull after the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, the delusions of his trauma-stalked psyche overlay those of the girl, who talks to Hitler and Freud and believes she brought down the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Part of what keeps you reading – I can’t deny it – is the constant question: “Did I really just read that?” The action accelerates when the increasingly frenzied protagonist exploits the girl’s curiosity about what it’s like to have male genitalia, at first giving her a severed otter penis to hide (and rot) under her bed. But the novel doesn’t rely on the usual attractions of wicked narrators; Rijneveld doesn’t seek to make the vet perversely good company on the page, nor does he deploy unreliability as a kind of reader-reward mechanism as we wise up to the extent of his deceit. Even as expertly timed detonations tilt our understanding of events, darkening the depravity yet further, the book’s real draw lies in its between-the-lines portrait of the pulverising impact of grief on the girl’s family: the pivotal death of their son, referred to only as “the lost child”, represents just one of several lost (stolen) childhoods here, including the vet’s, assuming – the biggest of ifs – we take him at his word.

I was floored by this novel, and if you’ve followed Rijneveld’s career to date, I suspect it can’t help but feel even more troubling. The Discomfort of Evening was written more or less from the point of view of a younger version of the girl here (another penis-envying, Hitler-fixated nose-picker still keen on Sesame Street). “I dig into everything I’ve been through and what I’m going through,” Rijneveld once said. “For me, it’s about turning something sad or beautiful into art.” Readerly attentiveness can become a type of intrusion; do we even want to know where My Heavenly Favourite came from? Yet I can’t pretend such thoughts play no part in my sense of its unholy brilliance.

My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld (translated by Michele Hutchison) is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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