I Hold a Wolf by the Ears: A Review
“I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is—it never happened.”
Laura van den Berg begins her sixth book, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, with this disorientingly brilliant line. The rest of the short stories in this collection keep the same momentum, whirling the reader into a dance with the beautiful and, at times, horrifying worlds van den Berg has created. The collection masterfully explores themes of womanhood, haunting and violence, occasionally making them inextricable from each other.
My personal favorite is “The Pitch,” where a woman keeps the secret of her deceased father-in-law’s voicemails from her grieving husband, whose behavior has grown increasingly erratic after finding a photograph of himself and another boy. The deceased’s final voicemail, “Did I ever tell you about my other son?” echoes throughout the piece, even as the woman starts to wonder if her husband is capable of killing her to escape his grief. In just sixteen pages, van den Berg builds a palpable amount of suspense surrounding the husband’s past and what exactly he’s capable of doing.
Another chilling story in this collection is “Your Second Wife,” where, trapped by the gig economy, a young woman makes a living dressing up as men’s dead wives and going on dates with them, much to the chagrin of her more practical older sister, who begs her to pick a safer profession. Her sister’s worries come true when a man drugs her and throws her in his car’s trunk to presumably murder her. Her kidnapping and escape are both harrowing and leave her nonplussed. The casual air with which she deals with the threat to her life mirrors how women generally move through the world, constantly in danger and yet able to keep moving. This danger is amplified for those in the service industry, like the main character, who are considered all but disposable economically.
Far more terrifying than the attempted murder is “Lizards,” a modern-day horror story featuring a woman dragged to Florida against her will by her husband, who tires of her complaints to the point of drugging her with a concoction supplied by a neighbor. The husband insists that he is not like the neighbor, whose sexism and crude sensibilities make him cringe. He touts being a registered Democrat as evidence of his evolution, even as he admits to a desire to assault his wife in her sleep. He muses, “what would happen if everyone were to one day stop pretending?”
The events of the story are interspersed with the characters’ reactions to the televised trial of a future Supreme Court justice facing sexual assault allegations, whom the husband insists is innocent until proven guilty. This story in particular is chilling because it harkens back so accurately to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, when women all across the country scrutinized the men in their own lives, wondering if they also had the capacity to harm them and fearing their secret desire for violence.
The questions brought up in “Lizards,” of whether women can ever be certain the men in their lives are truly good, are taken up a notch in “Karolina.” An art restorer on a business trip to Mexico City runs into her brother’s ex-wife, Karolina, sleeping on the streets. She has to grapple with the idea that the brother she loves and defended ferociously during the divorce—which put tension on her own marriage to a women’s trauma counselor—might have been capable of the abuse that Karolina accused him of doing. Here, we see a woman not in fear of her own safety, but haunted by the fact that she aided, abetted, and helped to cover up another woman’s abuse because of her own limited experience with a man she loved. This might be an even greater fear for women: not that harm will come to us, but that because of a blind spot, because of love for a violent man, we will hammer the last nail into another woman’s coffin.
Van den Berg’s prose is masterful enough to give the reader chills without becoming an unpleasant experience. Her work grapples with the same big ideas that capture us as a nation living in a post-MeToo world during a pandemic that has taken so many, loved and unloved. It’s no big secret that many women in North America fear for their lives every day; who amongst us has not heard stories about stalkers and handsy colleagues and men who scream profanities at people on the street? “Your Second Wife” resonates because of the protagonist's calm reaction; this violence is expected, and afterwards, the victim will either be able to return home to her daily life or she won’t. More often, though, the call does come from inside the house. Most of “Lizards” and “The Pitch” are set inside the home, and the perpetrators of fear are men who are deeply loved by the protagonists but who are still capable of instilling fear into their wives. The #MeToo movement brought hidden fears to the surface for many women, the fear that the men who we assumed were trustworthy simply aren’t, and the pandemic trapped women in the same houses as their abusers or potential abusers for over a year. Van den Berg teeters her characters on the edge of trust and fear, and “Karolina” answers the question of what happens when trust is the wrong choice. The characters in these stories are more often than not transient, on vacation, on work trips, or visiting family, which might not resonate with many during the pandemic, but the specter of death graces these pages, which is something that, as a nation, we are surrounded by more than ever. If you’re looking for stories that have a clean resolution, this is not the collection for that, but if you’re looking for stories that present our current lives in many different lights, look at fear from different angles, and emerge with a kind of messy emotional viscera, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears is just the book.