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The Dutch Wife

by Eric McCormack

From the novel’s first image – a stall-keeper idly winding an endless parasite out of his belly – this is vintage Eric McCormack Gothic. That horrifying “Guinea worm,” along with other curious phrases such as “Dutch wife,” becomes an evolving touchstone as the story unfolds. We live with awful things gnawing at our guts, McCormack tells us: if we are lucky, we are sustained by a steadfast, undemanding love. But too often that gnawing – a restless curiosity – prevails.

The collection of these bizarre stories is a character not unlike McCormack – a writer living in Camberloo, an Ontario town similar to Waterloo, where McCormack lives and teaches. To avoid grappling with his work-in-progress, The Kilted Cowpoke, a western written in Lowland Scottish dialect, the writer befriends the neighbour over the hedge, Thomas Vanderlinden.

Soon he is the sole audience to Vanderlinden’s life story. It is Vanderlinden who recounts The Dutch Wife’s most electrifying scene. Some months before Vanderlinden’s birth, his mother answers the door expecting her husband back from a long journey, only to find a stranger standing there. “I am your husband,” the stranger tells her. “Come inside,” she says after a brief hesitation, and a mesmerizing story unfolds. Decades on, Vanderlinden is dispatched to track down his mother’s “real” husband, and bring him home to cast some light on the switch. The journey to a remote Pacific island rivals a yarn by Stevenson or Conan Doyle.

During the return trip, McCormack has the real husband recount a few of his adventures, and by the time we get the final pieces of the puzzle, we want to cry out weakly, Enough! Vanderlinden quotes a 16th-century thinker’s remark that preserving “the mysterious qualities of the mind” may be preferable to knowing too much, and McCormack slyly tests the limits of satiety. But soon the Guinea worm stirs, and this reader turned back to begin this witty, gently fantastic book all over again.