Lucas Rijneveld’s novel, “My Heavenly Favourite,” is a daring and powerful exploration of taboo themes.
My Heavenly Favourite, the second novel from acclaimed Dutch author Lucas Rijneveld, belongs to a tiny, controversial subgenre: novels about child sex abuse rendered in exquisite prose. It is all the more transgressive in that it’s narrated by the abuser, who addresses his victim in an incantatory, unflinchingly graphic second-person rant about his eternal love. Such a book has to clear a very high bar not to seem like a cynical exercise. Rijneveld’s novel leaps effortlessly over, with room to spare.
The storyteller is a 49-year-old military expert who serves a small agricultural community in the Netherlands. His “favorite from heaven” is a troubled 14-year-old girl, the daughter of a dairy farmer. Neither of them have been given names: he refers to her as “Little Bird” or “Putto”, while she calls him “Kurt” after Kurt Cobain. Little Bird is an outsider due to her advanced intelligence, potential mental illness, and secret obsession with having a penis. She is also inexperienced in matters of sex, having been raised in a strict religious household where communication was hindered by the tragic loss of her older sibling and the abandonment of her mother. This mirrors Rijneveld’s first acclaimed novel, The Discomfort of Evening, which draws from the author’s personal experiences.
Kurt takes on the role of a parental figure for Little Bird, providing unconditional love and support while indulging in her wild fantasies. He often uses grandiose and unsettling terms like “my magnificent creature” and “my heavenly chosen one” when addressing her. He even manipulates her gender dysphoria by offering to help her develop a phallus.
The two characters are remarkable creations, with a strong aesthetic appeal and a disturbingly convincing nature. Rijneveld effectively incorporates Kurt’s job into the story, often portraying him with gloves on and immersed in the workings of a farm animal, with graphic and unsettling descriptions. Kurt views human bodies through the lens of veterinary medicine, producing a powerful anti-erotic effect. A crucial moment in his grooming of Little Bird involves the removal of an otter’s penis, which Little Bird finds exhilarating. Kurt describes, “I witnessed you shimmering, I saw you shining with delight, my precious creature, and then I carefully sliced off the tip with my scalpel to reveal it to you. I left the rest to you…and once you had freed the penis, which was as long as an ice cream cone, you held it up like a trophy…”
However, what is truly remarkable about this situation is that even though the voice belongs to Kurt, the dominant consciousness is that of Little Bird. Kurt is completely identified with her, knowing her fantasies inside and out, and inhabiting them as if they were his own. He mimics her thoughts and ideas, listens to her favorite songs and writes down the lyrics, highlighting those that resonate with his own emotions. His narration passionately praises and elevates Little Bird in long, feverish sentences, sometimes slipping in and out of self-awareness. “…you were different, you delved into deep thoughts that even I couldn’t keep up with, you were submerged and it was difficult for me to connect with you, you were the bird who would later achieve fame, you were my prey…” However, it is evident that his obsession is not love. In scene after excruciating scene, Kurt experiences euphoria while his “heavenly chosen one” suffers.
Little Bird is not a cipher in the same way that Lolita is, valued solely for her youthful appearance and only noteworthy for the harm inflicted upon her. She is an eccentric and contemplative individual with a naturally strong personality. She intelligently grapples with mental illness and has relationships, romantic partners, and intellectual pursuits that hold more significance to her than Kurt ever could. Similar to a real troubled child, she is self-absorbed, dramatic, and can be frustratingly stubborn, exhibiting moments of poor judgment. She has fantasies of committing impossible crimes and identifies with Hitler, engaging in imaginary conversations with him. She yearns not just for love but adoration, which draws her to Kurt because he is currently the only source of it in her miserable surroundings.
The author of this text praises Rijneveld’s novel, which deliberately draws comparisons to Nabokov’s “Lolita” throughout. While their shared subject is approached more seriously, Rijneveld’s rich invention and delicate prose are reminiscent of Nabokov’s. The author also notes that Rijneveld effectively conveys the squalor and despair of sexual violence, making it a standout among other works on the subject. However, in addition to its success in tackling a difficult topic, the novel is also a unique and impressive display of transgressive imagination, solidifying Rijneveld as a gifted author.