One Long, Queasy Confession: On Lucas Rijneveld’s “My Heavenly Favorite”

By Francesca PeacockApril 13, 2024

One Long, Queasy Confession: On Lucas Rijneveld’s “My Heavenly Favorite”

My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld

IT’S SURREAL TO REVIEW a book that made you feel physically sick. It’s even more surreal to give a book that made you feel that way a good review, to say that the nausea was somehow positive or warranted. But that’s the bind when writing about Lucas Rijneveld’s horrifying and brilliant sophomore novel, My Heavenly Favorite.

Rijneveld made his international debut with The Discomfort of Evening. That book was first published in 2018 in his native Dutch (De avond is ongemak), and then translated by Michele Hutchison and published in English in 2020. That same year, it won the International Booker Prize. Rijneveld was not only the first Dutch author to claim the prize but also the first nonbinary author (Rijneveld announced his use of he/him pronouns in 2022, having previously used they/them and she/her). At the age of 29 in 2020, he was the youngest International Booker winner to date, and he remains so today.

The Discomfort of Evening was a stomach-churning novel, featuring scatological details, sexual horror, and a safety pin embedded in the belly button of the narrator. Its discomforting nature was earned, Rijneveld’s writing seemed to suggest, by its context—that of a Protestant Dutch farming family whose eldest son died in an ice-skating accident. While the tragedy goes unmentioned by their parents, his other siblings flounder: Jas, the 10-year-old narrator, becomes preoccupied with her guilt, believing she killed her brother with her resentment; Obbe, her older brother, takes to murdering animals and repeatedly banging his head against his bed. The whole environment is one of degradation—mutilated rabbits and dead toads, chronic constipation, an act of rape employing an artificial cow inseminator—and the book includes multiple scenes of sibling incest. Reviews called it “earthy,” averring that the volume “teems” with life. Their praise wasn’t misplaced. Rijneveld’s writing earns its gruesomeness through its sheer commitment to precision: the gore is painstakingly, unflinchingly conjured. Disgusting, yes—but gratuitous? No.

Rijneveld’s first novel was partly autobiographical. Set against the backdrop of the decimation caused by the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic across the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, it told of a family not unlike the one the author grew up in—a family that belonged to a “Reformed church” and subject to a “threatening, cruel God,” as Rijneveld put it in a 2020 interview. Rijneveld’s family also suffered the loss of a son, and the author shares a birthday with his debut’s narrator, Jas—April 20. As Jas notes, it’s also the same birthday as Hitler’s: “I’m like him,” she says, “and nobody must know it.” To say that guilt—warranted, misplaced, naive—saturates The Discomfort of Evening is an understatement.

April 20 provides a link, too, to My Heavenly Favorite. In this second novel, it’s the day the farmer’s daughter “came into the world in total silence like a wet calf with the membrane still over its head.” Might this then be an extension of Rijneveld’s earlier book? The timing makes sense: My Heavenly Favorite is set in 2005, and the unnamed girl at its heart is 14: a grown-up Jas. The worlds of the two novels are undoubtedly similar. As in The Discomfort of Evening, the narrative unfolds on a rural farm in Holland, set apart from but close to a small, religious village. Also as in Discomfort, the farm belongs to a family that has lost a son.

Yet there are differences. Rather than an ice-skating incident, this loss is the result of a car accident—a hit-and-run, after the boy “suddenly crossed the road to follow a friend.” And My Heavenly Favorite sidesteps an atmosphere of claustrophobic family surveillance in favor of something perhaps even bleaker. Following their brother’s accident, the remaining children experience another loss. As the narrator explains, their mother is “the forsaken one” who is “far far away […] all the way in Stavanger in the province of Rogaland”; he adds that she “left you after the accident when you were almost three.” Still on the farm are only the farmer and his two children: one near-adult son and one teenage daughter.

It feels misleading to quote sentences of My Heavenly Favorite without noting who says them. Marked by the book’s signature, slightly off-kilter second-person address, these depictions of life on the farm or the family’s breakdown aren’t those of an external, omniscient third party. Instead, recounting the entire story in propulsive run-on sentences that last for pages and pages without paragraph breaks is the agricultural vet who visits the farm, once a week at first, and then, as the book progresses, almost every day. This vet—we only find out his nickname, Kurt—is obsessed with the farmer’s daughter, whom he calls his “heavenly favourite.”

The whole book thereby constitutes one long, queasy confession to “you,” the girl Kurt begins to groom. He describes her adolescent body, his manipulations (the mattress he places in his car, the excuses he contrives to be alone with her), and his dreams of a Lolita-esque road trip. But we’re far from Nabokov’s mid-20th-century New England; all of this is couched in aughts-era cultural references. We’re introduced to the girl as she is “practising a Cranberries song” on her guitar, and she goes on to ape Amy Winehouse and idolize Kurt Cobain, the heartthrob from which the vet derives his nickname. Rijneveld skillfully lets readers into his novel only through sobriquets—names that come from the vet’s particular understanding of the world, his way of seeing. In that world, he and his heavenly favourite are akin to Bonnie and Clyde: “[T]here was no other couple that destroyed each other yet left each other so whole in that way.”


Throughout the book, the references Kurt applies to himself are self-consciously highbrow. He informs us on several occasions that he can quote and recite “lines from Beckett” that he always refuses “to repeat here.” He references Leonard Cohen—how he’d sing a refrain to a cow, or how “true” Cohen’s song “Ain’t No Cure for Love” is. For Kurt, cultural references and history aren’t abstract facts but something far more tangible, not just aspects of an identity but vital pieces of its whole. After all—for us, at least—the girl doesn’t exist beyond what the vet projects onto her: a dreamy version of his pop culture heroines.

Even more disconcerting dynamics are at play. Though we only hear of it via the vet, we learn that the girl blames herself for the September 11 attacks. In her imagination, she was the second plane, had become a bird and “flown into that building”:

[Y]ou’d heard the people’s screams beneath you, the sirens, and as you flew, office papers streaming out of the towers became doves of peace and you saw people launching themselves out of the windows, […] you had flown into that building, first with your head, your torso and then the rest of your body, your feet, you thought it was all your fault.

In Rijneveld’s universe, history itself appears up for grabs. It’s able to be made personal, part of an individual’s conception of themselves. It’s also an architecture of blame. Because, just as Jas in The Discomfort of Evening believed herself to be tied to Hitler, the girl in My Heavenly Favorite yokes herself to 9/11 and cries over what she’s convinced she has done. On a more local scale, the vet claims to be the driver who hit the “lost child,” the individual responsible for an impact so hard the girl’s brother “was dead before he hit the ground”: “I shouldn’t have driven on, it was an anxiety reflect, no more than that, the road was treacherous, everyone knew that […] and I lay there snivelling, I snivelled and said that maybe this was why I loved you so much, because it was my fault you were defective.”

The novel’s hallucinatory style is such that this admission could be nothing more than another bad dream or warped desire: it’s unclear if he did kill the boy. Either way, the vet is plagued by this and other flashbacks, including to his abusive childhood and the suicide of a farmer during the 2001 epidemic. What is clear, then, is everyone’s near-pathological (and, in the case of the vet and the girl, quasisexual) desire to have done wrong, to be guilty, to be blamed.

Given the pious atmosphere of The Discomfort of Evening and Rijneveld’s taste for using biographical details, it isn’t surprising that the cultural and historical references in My Heavenly Favorite are joined by religious allusions. Like Rijneveld’s first novel, this is a world of the censorious Reformed church: a church that could “banish” its members for “immoral behaviour” or “filth.” While this church exists on the borders of the novel—for the most part it remains the domain of the girl’s father—the words of its Bible encroach on the narrative. Rijneveld’s prose is peppered with snatches from psalms, italicized and gruesome-sounding, estranged as they are from their original, spiritual context. When the vet describes his wife Camillia’s reaction to the child apologizing for her relationship with him, he quotes Psalm 137: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” On another occasion, he invokes Psalm 49—“This is what happens to those who live for the moment, who only look out for themselves: Death herds them like sheep; they disappear down the gullet of the grave.” In this way, Rijneveld removes the authority of the church and reduces its literature to a function of the novel’s death-ridden, corrupt atmosphere. The psalms, even the words of the Bible, become yet another version of the vet’s taut, all-controlling narrative voice. There is no redemption to be found here.

In a similarly disheartening vein, My Heavenly Favorite contains the absurd body horror that really only Rijneveld can write. The vet gifts the girl a (much-desired) otter’s penis, which then goes moldy under her bed. On a different occasion, she attempts to dismember another boy. There’s plain old absurdity too: the girl’s brother feeds a bull MDMA, and the crazed animal consequently kills another teenager. And, in a plot twist worthy of Greek drama, the vet’s teenaged son begins to date the girl.

What comes from all this gore, guilt, and depression? The girl at the center of My Heavenly Favorite grows up to become a pop singer, and her debut album, Kurt12, describes her abuse. There’s a court case, social workers, retributions—the album’s name is “based on the case number.” The vet recounts its fictional New York Times review: “You can hear the homesickness in her voice, the homesickness for the countryside, for the life she left behind. She was the only one of her classmates to leave the village and now she is the only one who longs to go back. This record stems from an obsession with her childhood.”

The music, the case—none of it allows the girl to move on. From the beginning, her story is suffused with pop culture references; the vet reaches for one in virtually every moment of his narrative, remembering, for example, how “[y]ou were terribly ill on Kate Bush’s forty-seventh birthday.” As time passes, the girl writes songs of her own. Her lyrics relate how “[e]verything changed that day, the child disappeared from me.” (She seems to be referring to the beginning of the sexual abuse, or the moment her own childhood ended.) A different song, “Sweet Bully,” describes Bullebak, the animal that killed a teenager after ingesting MDMA.

None of this brings closure or catharsis—Rijneveld wouldn’t permit anything so easy or naive. Instead, My Heavenly Favorite remains mired in horror: a similar but subtly different horror to that which seeped through The Discomfort of Evening. In this instance, Rijneveld is toying with memory, with history, with the idea that writing or producing art can ever possibly change anything. The answer he posits—one of stasis, of no hope for progress—sits in curious opposition to the brilliance of the novel he has written. Because, however sickening My Heavenly Favorite is, it’s certainly an example of literary mastery. Even so, Rijneveld argues, making art only about horror achieves nothing. Play it over and over again, he says. Repeat to fade.

LARB Contributor

Francesca Peacock is an author and arts journalist. Her first book, Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish, was published in 2024 by Pegasus Books.


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