The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Quiver by Holly Luhning

Reviewed by Marc André Fortin

Holly Luhning  

Quiver. HarperCollins, 2011.

289 pp.


Holly Luhning’s Quiver explores the sublime fascination with human violence and its relationship to the ephemeral nature of beauty, youth, and fashion. Through references to simulacra, representation, and symbolic and iconic doubles, Janus-faced partners and lovers Luhning’s novel weaves an intricate web of mystery around the Hungarian serial killer Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), who apparently killed over 600 young women, and sometimes bathed in her victims’ blood in an attempt to stop the physical effects of aging. Quiver integrates Victorian sensation fiction and gothic romanticism within a contemporary narrative of modern urban realism into a search for a possible cult that holds a singular devotion to mimicking the practices and ideas of Báthory by killing young females in order to experience the rupture of the real through murder.

Quiver is written from the perspective of Danica Wilson, a forensic psychologist who has followed her art-student boyfriend Henry from Halifax, Canada to London, England. Danica has obtained a position at Stowmoor, a Victorian-style prison hospital, where her work involves analyzing Martin Foster, a criminal convicted of having abducted a fifteen-year-old girl and having “slashed her neck with a Renaissance-era dagger, bled her to death and bit pieces of flesh from her thighs” (5). According to Foster his crime was an homage to Báthory, and Danica is not so much fascinated with Foster as she is with Foster’s criminal intention and the woman to whom it was dedicated. The novel plays on the element of fascination as evinced in the epigraph to the novel: “Beauty is Terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it” (Donna Tartt, The Secret History).  Quiver initiates a reading of beauty rooted in the narcissistic, reflecting back, as in a mirror, devotion to one’s own actions and physical appearance held in sway by the possibility that violence can maintain one’s awe of existence.

Danica is contrasted in the novel with the seductive, mysterious, and seemingly psychopathic Maria János. Their relationship begins when they meet at an academic conference, and the resulting pull and play of desire, distrust, and fear that arises between the two women creates a wonderful juxtaposition and reflection of the disorienting reality of art and violence, academia and popular media. Maria represents the real possibility of experiencing the sublime terrors of life where Danica simply theorizes about them. Maria’s friendship with Danica eventually becomes a test to see if Danica will cross the ethical line between fascination and action. Luhning makes adept and subtle movements in the narrative among various extremes of epistemological investigations into human behaviour. Danica’s theorization of crime and psychosis plays off the popular media’s attraction to the sensationalist elements of violence. The possibility of real violence entering into Danica’s life is suggested by the forced look over the shoulder, the reflection of a ghostly simulacrum of Maria in the High Street shop window, and the self-reflective craving to live through a horrific experience in order to see if she can come out of it cleansed of her desires for more violence. 

Actual criminality in the novel is set off against multi-layered artistic reproductions of crime and terror that suggest aesthetic oppositions between reality and fiction, and between intellectual interpretation and illusion. The borders that separate art from crime mingle in a play between acting and acting upon the other. Hierarchies of value (the value of the human other included) suggest possible answers to questions of authority, and the morality of crime. The historical possibility of a sixteenth century murder is ironically reduced to the modern act of struggling with city crowds in order to get to the beauty parlour to have false eyelashes painfully glued onto the body. Historical sadistic tendencies become modern masochistic mutilations.

Although Quiver sets up a complex reading of ethics and violence that is sustained until the very end of the novel in an unfolding mystery that unwraps itself in tension-filled climax, there is a lack of subtlety present in some sections. There is little that escapes symbolic value in the text; by which I mean that everything ties the plot together so neatly that some passages do tend to devolve into cliché. Although there is a much needed ambiguity that maintains the narrative tension throughout, some parts of the novel take a heavy-handed approach to expressing the interconnectedness of the plot. But perhaps this is the point: as the intensity of single-minded devotion and desire for the culminating climax of violence have been recreated in a text as an exploration of the human vulnerability towards, and blind fascination for, the beautiful.


At press time: Marc André Fortin recently completed his PhD in English Canadian Literature from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His dissertation, “Science Imagined | Literature Realized: Truth and Fiction in Canada,” focuses on representations of science in contemporary Canadian fiction and the interdisciplinary postmodern play of literature, religion, and faith. As a side project, Marc is currently editing both an online and print edition of Marius Barbeau’s 1928 novel The Downfall of Temlaham, which has led him into the digital humanities and issues of technology, pedagogy, and physical and digital archives.

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