‘Quiver’ by Holly Luhning

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Michelle Berry

I really like food.  I like food when I’m happy and feel well. I like food when I’m sad or sick. There are not many things that can make me stop eating. At least that’s what I thought until I read Quiver, Holly Luhning’s first novel.
A psychological thriller, a tour de force of depravity topped with pure evil, Luhning’s story will turn your stomach. It is not for the lighthearted.

This is not because of the writing. Luhning comes at this novel from a poetry background. Her book of poems, Sway, won a Saskatchewan Book Award. She also has a PhD in eighteenth-century literature: madness and theories of the body. She is an academic and yet she writes beautifully.

Quiver is a literary thriller.  Like Eden Robinson (author of Blood Sports), who blurbs this novel, like Andrew Pyper (author of Lost Girls), Luhning subverts genres, plays with boundaries, mixes tantalizing thrill with overall depth. This is a page-turner, but it is also a book about perceptions of beauty, about society’s fixation on looks. Luhning gives us pages of description about make-up and clothing which, in any other book, could be construed as “light” writing. Lists of tulle and silk and stilettos and gold eyeshadow and bow lips — “She’s wearing a zebra-print spaghetti-strap cocktail dress, with a wide silver belt held together by three tightly fastened straps. The belt cinches her waist tight; she is a tiny hourglass.”

But in this novel there is a reason for the descriptives, a good reason. Quiver is about what we put on in order to gain power and recognition. Be it make-up or clothing, or even blood, what we cover our bodies with is the overall theme of Luhning’s novel.

Danica Winston, a recent graduate student in psychology, has just been assigned her first job at Stowmoor, a forensic hospital that happens to be housed in a Victorian insane asylum in London, England. For years Danica has been obsessed with Elizabeth Báthory, the true-life sixteenth-century Hungarian serial torturer and murderer of more than 600 servant girls (honestly, Google her; she was a female Dracula). Danica carries her interests with her to the new job, where she conducts interviews with Martin Foster. Martin is serving a life sentence for the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, a murder he committed under the influence of a modern-day cult of Báthory. These are Silence of the Lambs interviews. I was waiting for him to ask for “a nice Chianti.”

Elizabeth Báthory didn’t just murder girls, she tortured them horrifically. She ate their flesh, burned them and froze them alive, but mostly she bathed in their blood. This is where Luhning’s play with the concept of beauty comes in – Báthory believed that bathing in a young girl’s blood would keep her beautiful forever. And unfortunately (back to present day England), her cult believes this too.

Danica’s friends and family wonder why she chooses to spend her time in psychiatric facilities around insane and violent criminals. She says, “I do this because I want to know about extremes. About the sublime edges people retreat into and lash out from. I want to know about people who deviate from what society has authorized as acceptable behaviour. About their fixations and obsessions, those quick dark moments when the safety doesn’t catch and they tell the lie, forge the cheque, steal the car, use the knife. What pushes them over the threshold of idea into action.” This is the crux of the story: what does push some people over the edge?

In Danica’s case it could be Maria, a stunning, charming, wealthy, charismatic acquaintance who seems to be showing up in all the right places. There is an attraction between Danica and Maria that goes beyond mere friendship, an attraction that may lead Danica down a very dangerous path. But that is best left for the reader to discover. Maria takes Danica on a whirlwind tour of the upper class – art shows and charity balls, fancy clothing stores and spas. She also claims to have discovered Báthory’s diary and she seduces Danica with snippets of her translation of Báthory’s words.

Be forewarned, however, as Luhning paints a gruesome picture, one which will stick with you for days. In fact, I’m still having nightmares about honey torture and my stomach wells up into my throat when I think about an old horse and a gypsy. This book shouldn’t be read by anyone in a public place in case your dinner comes up quickly.

There is the inevitable fast-paced, exciting ending, straight from Hollywood. What we are left with is a powerful, well-written book. Holly Luhning combines history, mental illness and art to create a wild ride.

A minor complaint I might have, one that struck me every time I put the book down, had to do with something outside of the author’s control and that is the cover of Quiver. A shiny silver background, a white face coated in makeup on one side, the gothic lettering of Quiver splattered with blood, this looks like a teenage, vampire novel. It reeks of Twilight. And this is a tiny bit of a shame. I understand publishers have to work harder than ever to sell books and that the cover is an important draw, but I’m afraid Luhning will alienate a mature, critical audience. I don’t think I would have picked up this book in the store. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the back blurb or the inside flap. And that’s too bad, because walking past Quiver – while allowing me to eat again – would have meant missing out on something quite delicious.

HarperCollins Canada | 287 pages | $21.99 | paper | ISBN #978-1554686971

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Michelle Berry

Michelle Berry’s latest novel is Interference (ECW Press, 2014).