Miriam Toews (pronounced taves) is an accomplished Canadian author. The context of her literary novels is mostly her strict conservative Mennonite upbringing, either in dealing with the effects in some way, or in fleeing from it. Previous novels of hers that I have enjoyed are A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. She takes on serious topics but her darkly humorous style allows her to balance grief and hope in equal measure. This one deals with depression and suicide which was poignant because this week the media was so full of the news of Robin Williams and consecutive attention paid to mental health issues. Yesterday CBC Cross Country Checkup dealt with the topic and I wanted to call in and say “Read this novel!”
This is the story of Elfrieda and Yolandi, two sisters who couldn’t be more different from each other. Elf is successful and beautiful, a gifted musician with a loving husband and everything to live for. Yoli is a mess. She is broke, divorced, and struggling to be a good single parent and a good daughter to her mother. And yet it is Elfrieda who wants to die and Yolandi who is trying to keep her sister alive. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” p. 37.
Toews writes so beautifully. Though this book is about depression and suicide it is oddly not depressing, albeit very sad. She is a master of metaphor and uses it to huge advantage to convey complex emotions while keeping the story down to earth. It’s an honest insider’s look at how families and individuals suffer from clinical depression.