The Misfortunates, By Dimitri Verhulst


Reminiscent of the TV series Shameless in its portrayal of an anarchic working-class family, Dimitri Verhulst's semi-auto-biographical novel is set in a nondescript Flemish town, "an ugly backwater, but a great place for drizzle and pigeon fancying". It centres on the dysfunctional childhood of 13-year old Dimmy, who lives in his grandmother's house with his workshy, alcoholic father and equally inebriated uncles. Their squalid existence is worn like a badge of honour: "We were poor, always had been, but we bore our poverty with pride. A flash car in front of the house was a humiliation".

Everything in the Verhulst household revolves around alcohol consumption. When Dimmy's "respectable" cousin Sylvie comes to stay, the family delight in instructing her in the art of drinking. A social worker meets the family when they are suffering from a group hangover. The bailiffs attempt to repossess a television in lieu of defaulted payments squandered on beer.

The story unfolds through anecdotes where machismo, misogyny, and general debauchery are the dominant themes. The Verhulsts pride themselves on their proclivity for drinking, their sexual and fighting prowess, but what differentiates Dimmy is his powers of observation and ability to describe their lives with a wry, laconic humour.

Despite his family's aversion to anything resembling hard work, Dimmy makes a life as a writer. In the closing chapters, Verhulst fast-forwards to Dimmy's early experiences as an adult. His callousness towards the birth of his first child vividly contrasts with the devotion he shows to his grandmother in her care home. His affection for his late father remains, but his love for his uncles has been replaced with a mild distrust.

Turning degenerate lives into literature is nothing new, but Verhulst's distinctive voice, childlike and knowing at the same time, is particularly resonant. His savage humour is refreshing in its honesty. Seamlessly translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, this is a welcome addition to the ranks of literary fiction that find humour, and sometimes poetry, in urban deprivation.