Book review: My Heavenly Favourite is Lucas Rijneveld’s wandering into a paedophilic mind

My Heavenly Favourite

By Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison
Fiction/Faber & Faber/Paperback/330 pages/$23/Amazon SG (
4 stars

The 2020 winner of the International Booker Prize, Lucas Rijneveld, returns with a fever dream of a novel – a breathless, manic confession by a convicted paedophile, self-exorcising as he struggles helplessly against his unabated lust.

It is a kind of prison manifesto, reminiscent of that other notorious tract, Mein Kampf by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who, incidentally, is the go-to imaginary friend of a troubled 14-year-old girl in this book.

These details should be enough to gesture at Rijneveld’s fearless transgression of any sense of propriety here, but nothing prepares you for how the non-binary author rides roughshod over rules moral, chronological and grammatical.

Each chapter is one to two sentences long, the run-on clauses compressing past, present and future, as well as the imaginary and the real.

With each pause, the reader emerges from the tragedy shell-shocked, fatigued and hemmed in by grief. No other author is writing like Rijneveld at the moment, although some of its claustrophobia recalls Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985).

The unnamed paedophile is a Dutch veterinarian in his late 40s, whose dysfunctional childhood is gradually revealed.

Married with children of his own, he manages to suppress his wayward feelings for teenagers until he meets the 14-year-old daughter of one of his farmer clients. The two strike up an obsessive friendship, powered by the precocious girl’s loneliness and, initially, the man’s knowledge of personalities, such as singers Bon Jovi and Kurt Cobain, and author Stephen King.

Rather than the vet, though, it is the girl whom readers discern most clearly between the lines – from her people-pleasing tendency after her mother left to her tragic ignorance of how sex works.

She craves for fame so she can leave her stifling, stoic household. An oddball even among her peers, she has conversations with Hitler and neurologist Sigmund Freud in her head, and believes she was one of the planes that brought down the World Trade Centre during 9/11.

The vet steps into this patent need for a mentor figure, with each interaction becoming more brazen and more unjustifiable, involving stalking, clandestine text messages and a plum seed.

Rijneveld’s capacity for gruesome imagination and ability to pick out the unseen detail is a major reason this circular novel works.

The vet’s ramblings are aestheticised – this is a literary work – and mixed with his own tortured conscience: “I slowly crawled under your skin like a liver fluke in a cow, there isn’t a more pleasant way of putting it: I was a parasite.”

All moral bets are off, the author wants to let readers feel their own way through this one. At what point does the vet’s actions become unforgivable? Is the sordidness of the affair less shocking when viewed from inside? Family grief has a tendency to reverberate and self-perpetuate.

Rijneveld, who was born Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, has mysteriously dedicated this book to an unnamed “You”, and one cannot help but wonder how much of it is drawn from the author’s own childhood, also in a farming family. The girl in My Heavenly Favourite develops an incipient case of penis envy or gender dysphoria that is mercilessly exploited.

Whatever the case, it is a daring tour de force – understanding the actions of an abuser can sometimes lead to its own kind of closure.

If you like this, read: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage, 2014, $31.30, Books Kinokuniya, go to Jeanette is brought up by her mother to be a zealous missionary, until she falls for one of her converts – a young woman.

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