Leyla Sanai

Escape into fantasy: My Heavenly Favourite, by Lucas Rijneveld, reviewed

The 14-year-old daughter of a Dutch farmer is pursued by a paedophile vet and tries hard to combat the abuse by imagining she’s a bird

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld after winning the International Booker Prize in 2020. [Getty Images]

When Marieke Lucas Rijneveld won the International Booker Prize in 2020 for The Discomfort of Evening, a novel set in the Netherlands about the daughter of a dairy farmer growing up in a strict Christian household in the wake of the tragic death of her brother, the earthy, uncompromising voice was striking. The book was disturbing in its subject matter (the parents, blinded by grief, allow their remaining children to become semi-feral, experimenting with sex and death) and its visceral animal similes: bloody birth, brutal mating, culls for foot-and-mouth disease, slaughter.

The ten-year-old girl protagonist had a lot in common with the author; and so it is again in My Heavenly Favourite, written under the name of Lucas Rijneveld. This time the narrator is a middle-aged vet, and long, breathy sentences convey the crowded, feverish thoughts pulsing through his mind as he letches obsessively after the 14-year-old daughter of his farmer client.

As before, the girl’s grief (again over a lost brother, this time exacerbated by the subsequent departure of her mother) has precipitated her escape into a fantasy world inspired by a children’s book about animals – one in which she is a bird – and those dear to her take on animal monickers. Her survivor’s guilt has morphed into a bizarre sense of responsibility for 9/11. She believes the Twin Towers were brought down as a result of her flying into them. Her envy of her brother’s easy communication with their father combines with her lack of interest in stereotypical female activities, and she longs to be a boy –gender dysphoria she shares with the author.

This is no Lolita.

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