What if Humbert Humbert were a Dutch veterinary surgeon in the early 2000s? This isn’t a question I can imagine anyone asking, but it’s testament to Lucas Rijneveld’s talent that the resulting answer, My Heavenly Favourite, is an extraordinary literary achievement – albeit one you might hesitate to recommend.
Kurt, the novel’s narrator, is an agricultural vet infatuated with a 14-year-old girl, the daughter of one of his clients. We never learn her name, only Kurt’s sobriquets for her; nor is “Kurt” his real name, but a pseudonym she picks. But around 50 pages in, we learn that Kurt is 49 years old and has known her since she was a little girl. He gradually reveals more. He is married with two sons; he was sexually abused by his mother as a child; he suffers flashbacks to discovering the body of a farmer who committed suicide. A hyper-articulate creep, he essentially self-diagnoses as a man who’s attracted to children because his own childhood was denied him.
All his life, up to the drawn-out summer depicted in the novel, Kurt has been able to resist his urges – but this time something undoes him. At first, he admires the girl from afar, as she practises a Cranberries song on her guitar under a pear tree; but, he now recalls, “everything changed when you began to speak to me, on 7 July to be precise”. With this slightest show of engagement, he sets out to prey on her, going through a ghoulish pantomime – which Kurt firmly holds to be mutual – of adult courtship and seduction. He finds excuses to visit her father’s farm more regularly; he buys a luxury memory-foam mattress for the back of his Fiat van.
Rijneveld’s novel, entirely narrated by Kurt, is written in single-paragraph chapters, several pages long, and with a breathless cadence to their lengthy sentences. The girl tells Kurt everything, however idiosyncratic, and he diligently records it. They text-message obsessively, meet for secret conversations at night or in his car. A classic narcissist, he knows how to manipulate a response, when to smother with affection and when to scold: “I knew you couldn’t bear it when anyone was angry with you.”
The unnamed subject of Rijneveld’s novel is its most powerfully drawn character. She possesses a wild imagination, plenty of eccentricity and – since her younger brother’s death, years before – an obvious vulnerability. Uncertain about her own gender identity, she longs for a “prong”, which Kurt promises will grow if she will only have sex with him. Naturally, none of their relationship will come to any good, and the tension and drive of the narrative comes in anticipating the scale of the fall-out. Kurt’s wife becomes increasingly suspicious that something is awry; the girl’s brother eventually finds her diary under her bed.
While we have none of Nabokov’s psychological sleight-of-hand to lull us into forgetting just what we’re reading about, Rijneveld lends proceedings a familiar, horrid comedy. At one point, Kurt becomes a rival to his own son, when the latter starts dating his father’s obsession; Kurt’s withering observations of his son’s lack of maturity, and ability to understand the girl, are unwittingly hilarious. He’s an incriminatingly reliable narrator, but there are lacunae, not least the veil that descends over his perception and ability to recall during the sexual assaults.
Like The Discomfort of Evening (2018/in English, 2020), Rijneveld’s International Booker-winning debut, My Heavenly Favourite is graphic, unsettling and brilliantly written. And, as in the debut, we’re given a disturbing portrayal of a small rural community – Het Dorp, with a population of 530 – which seems barely to have changed in two centuries. Most impressive here is the unstinting execution: the story is far from over once the crimes have been revealed to everyone. It’s as if Rijneveld’s camera were still rolling after most directors would have called “cut”. We’re forced to witness greater and greater repercussions. (And there are some truly despicable revelations in the final pages, jaw-dropping in their cruelty.)
Above all, My Heavenly Favourite does a superb job of rendering the language of obsessive love – you and me versus the world – as a kind of sickness. The convoluted private jokes, the shared pop-culture reference points: everything serves to skewer the brutal crassness of sentimentality. At his most repellent, Kurt sounds like an Instagram poet: “you and I were inevitable, we were the bridge in a song, we were different from everything and everyone around us…” What we’re left with, instead, is a dour Presbyterian truth: that some things are beyond redemption, and to understand all is not to forgive all. For Kurt, God’s mercy may or may not await. In the meantime, his confession, and this novel, offer a harrowing portrait of his soul: broken, damaged and profoundly dangerous.
My Heavenly Favourite, tr Michele Hutchison, is published by Faber at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books