Forgetting the Question

Patty Osborne

Why would Rachel Vanderlinden accept, without comment, a stranger who knocks at her door and introduces himself as her missing anthropologist husband? This question is at the heart of The Dutch Wife (Penguin Canada) by Eric McCormack, a story told by Thomas, Rachel’s son, who is now an old man. Thomas’s story soon becomes his mother’s story, which in turn becomes her husband Rowland’s story. Then we go back to Thomas’s story, then to the stranger at the door’s story, and then more of Rowland’s story, until we’ve forgotten all about the question that originally caught our interest. Through the different narratives we travel from small-town Ontario, to places: where it is taboo to eat anything (in this case a banana) while in a boat; where a man is punished for desecrating a fetish (in this case the bough of a fig tree); where women drink and fight while men take care of domestic tasks; and where Thomas licks a fish and then experiences erotic hallucinations—all events that keep us glued to the story. Then, as Thomas and Rowland travel by train across our own sedate country, we realize that we are about to learn the answer to the original question. As the story winds down, readers might be tempted to turn to Google to fact-check some of the places and events they’ve just read about—until discovering that the author (who was Thomas’s next door neighbor) has listed his own research results. This is a book you can get lost in—which is why it got me through the first weeks of the pandemic.

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