Tag Archives: Miriam Toews

‘Women Talking’ by Miriam Toews

This novel is based on real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and raped in the night by what they were told were “ghosts” or “demons.” Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. It takes place over 48 hours, as eight women hide in a hayloft while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the perpetrators. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man invited by the women to witness the conversation–a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women talk. The time has come for the men to listen and the women to talk!

The book has been published at the right time, it’s kind of a Mennonite Me Too! There are also parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood that was recently adapted into a TV series. There’s a great Guardian article about the author and this book, which is worth a read: here.

Canadian author Miriam Toews (pronounced ‘Taves’) is known for writing novels about her religious and family background–the author is obviously conflicted about her love for her heritage, family, and community, but also angry about how members of that same rigid and righteous community are treated, especially women. (Notice what the highlighted letters on the cover spell). With all of her books I get the feeling that she really needed to write them to sort out her own feelings about her upbringing.  In this novel the women who are kept illiterate and seem to have no higher value than the animals on the farm, are given a voice in a witty and heartbreaking way. The conversation that ensues features some deeply philosophical thinking and a real struggle to determine a way forward. It may seem simple, but it’s complicated.

Toews is a master at comic relief, dealing deftly with deeply disturbing topics by employing her signature dark humour. Reading this on the heels of Educated by Tara Westover was interesting because there were so many parallels. This would be an interesting book club read for sure, although for myself, I preferred her last book All My Puny Sorrows, a poignant fiction based on true events in her own family regarding her sister’s suicide.

‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews

All My Puny SorrowsstarstarstarstarMiriam 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.