Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: "Quiver" by Holly Luhning

Oddly enough, "Quiver" makes two books in a row that mention Elizabeth Bathory. Or, as she's known in her native Hungarian and in Holly Luhning's book, Erzsébet Báthory.

Bathory, for those who haven't heard of her, is a 16th-century countess who is infamous for having tortured and killed hundreds of girls before she was arrested and bricked up in her castle, where she later died. "Quiver" is the story of a young woman who is fascinated — really, you could say obsessed — with Bathory. Danica is completing the last of her training as a clinical psychologist, a field she entered because of her interest in psychotics. She's managed to get herself a job a mental hospital in England, where she's assigned to work with a convicted murderer who claims to have killed his victim for Bathory. Danica's work there attracts the attention of an old acquaintance, Maria, who tempts Danica with what she says are pages from Bathory's diary. What Maria really wants is a more complicated question, and it's one that Danica will have no choice but to answer.

I was more than a little put off by Danica's interest in Bathory. The story doesn't work unless she's borderline obsessed, but it's still disconcerting how little the extent of the countess' cruelty and monstrosity bother her. She blames her interest on a supremely safe childhood:

I've never had an experience like that, something that gnawed at me in every pause and that changed the taste of things. I know I should be grateful, but I'm curious, envious to see what it's like to pass through a version of reality and to see your world differently than you are able to understand right now. Reading about Bathory didn't completely change me, but it spurred me, dug in just enough to encourage my curiosity of what it might be like to experience the horrific.

"Technically, I was fixated," she says later. For sure. When she reads scenes Maria sends her from Bathory's diary — scenes of unbelievable torture, total dismissal of the value of countless human lives — her reaction borders on aroused. (And, yes, there is a subtext of sexual tension between Danica and Maria, who resembles the countess in many ways.)

Without those diary scenes, this book would fall in line with the characters it describes, glorifying a woman who destroyed hundreds of lives and families simply because she could. With them, the reader is kept from buying into the warped adoration of Danica or, more so, Maria. (After I finished "Quiver," one of my first reactions was that no one would think of Bathory as Danica, Maria, and others in the book do. When I headed online to research some of the details of her story, however, I was shocked to find multiple sites whose authors defend her without denying her crimes. How sad.)

This isn't a book I'll be rushing to re-read, despite solid writing and editing. It certainly isn't uplifting, and the main character is both frustratingly obtuse and difficult to root for. If you enjoy horror and are a fan of movies such as "Hostel" or the "Saw" series (which I am not), you'll enjoy this book more than I did.

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