Friday, 12 October 2018

Book review: All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews (2014)

This impressive novel has a gem-like purity of vision, something so brilliant and innate, deriving from that which is contained within it, that you can use it to get through those tough days when things seem just too much to bear. It tells the story of two sisters, the insatiably curious Yolandi, who writes novels for young adults, and her older sibling, the talented musician Elfrieda.

The girls grow up in a family within the Mennonite community in rural Canada. The Mennonites were Anabaptists who had migrated to the Ukraine in the years after the Renaissance started, when people began moving away from the Catholic Church. Mennonites were always careful to make sure they were not obliged to serve militarily in the administrations that governed their communities. They also worked hard to conserve their language, which they thought was essential to preserving their unique culture. Some Russian Mennonites emigrated to Canada in the last decades of the 19th century but after the October Revolution, all remaining Russian Mennonites were sent to Siberia and then were expelled from the Soviet Union, moving to North America.

The town that the two Von Riesen girls grow up in in Manitoba is called East Village but their father Jacob, a bookish man with drive and a lot of progressive ideas, is often at odds with the town’s leaders, dour Christians with circumscribed views and long lists of things that you are not allowed to do. He commits suicide when the girls are still living with their parents, and the girls eventually move away from the community. Elfrieda follows her passion for the piano and becomes a professional pianist.

The bulk of the narrative concerns the problem that Yolandi has when her sister tries to kill herself for a second time. By this time Yolandi has had two children by two different fathers and she is in the process, when the narrative starts, of getting divorced from one of these men, Dan, who is often out of the country on business. Their daughter Nora, who is aged about 15, and Yolandi’s other child, Will, who is aged about 18 and who lives in New York, are included in the main part story through text messages. Much of the time is spent in the hospital in Winnipeg where Elfrieda has been taken to recover from her attacks on herself, and part of the drama is produced when she asks Yolandi to help her get to Switzerland where she would be able, legally, to kill herself with the help of competent doctors.

It is spring and the Assiniboine River is in flood, with ice breaking up in the stream. Nic, Elfrieda’s husband, who lives in Winnipeg, is making a canoe. There is a wonderful little vignette at one point when Nic and Yolandi are walking outside one day and they see a canoe being carried upside down by what appear to be two teenage boys. Nic asks them if they are planning to use it in the river and they say they are. He tells them it is still too dangerous and convinces them to let him take the canoe, which he promises to look after. They can come and get it later. Nic gives them money so they can catch a bus to their home, which is located downriver.

This small detail elegantly and in a novelistic way serves to underscore how natural it is to care for other people around us, how we are all connected, and how, consequently, it is torturous for Elfrieda’s family to see her intent on destroying herself. It also says something important about the recklessness of youth and how the young always try to find their own solutions to problems, despite what their elders might say.

The girls’ mother, Lottie, is also a central figure in the drama and serves by the end of the book to propel the narrative forward in surprising ways. You can see how the two girls had been raised by their parents to be independent-minded and wilful. In Yolandi’s case, there is a savage oppositional force within her that rejects accepted norms and strives to exist as an independent thing in the world. And Elfrieda’s passion for music locates her close to the divine, as art is a way of making the ineffable sensible for mortals.

The way that Yolandi interacts with the nursing staff and the doctors who are assigned to caring for her sister tells you a lot about Yolandi. She gets close to one nurse, Janice, but finds the others to be unsatisfactory. She also fights with Elfrieda’s doctor. This negative animus will resurface in a surprising way later on in the novel but it would be poor form to reveal too much. There is a real dramatic arc at work in this book, with moments of great crisis around which the rest of the structure pivots.

Although there is a lot of dialogue it is rendered without conventional punctuation. The thoughts of Yolandi as she goes about her business are also conveyed in the narrative, and so you get a kind of collage of different points of view that emerge, each of which adds to the story in its own unique way. The characterisation is also extremely fine, with each of the people who are involved in the book assuming a unique personality.

This is a very fine book indeed. It also shows something about how Canada sees itself. At one point, Jacob has an idea to supply restaurants and roadhouses in the province with placemats to eat off that contain messages about the history of the nation, but this scheme does not get off the ground. In the book, the big neighbour to the south seems to be far less important in people’s minds than is Europe, which emerges as the main point of reference when Canadians was to compare themselves to something outside their own borders. The book’s title is taken from a poem titled ‘To A Friend’ of 1794 by Samuel Coleridge, a poet whose work Elfrieda had admired when she was a teenager. In the poem the narrator talks about his sister, with whom he had had conversations that he had not had with anyone else.

In a real way, this novel allows the author to confide in the reader in the same way that Coleridge confided in Charles Lamb (the “friend” of the poem). The way that the affections and other things tie people together can be described using the word “empathy”, although in Coleridge’s day the word did not exist. The poem named here is really about this force that ties people together, and it is something that is central to the human animal, which is essentially social in nature.

I was reminded of this force the other day when I was walking back home over the Pyrmont Bridge after having been to the dermatologists’ clinic. Near its western end I saw an elderly couple stop walking and turn to look at a small boy, aged about five years, who was standing next to the bridge’s boundary and playing with the barrier that has been installed there to stop people falling into the water. As I came closer, I asked aloud, “Is he lost?” and the woman sort of raised her hands, then walked over to the boy and bent down to talk to him. Just then, from the west, a middle-aged woman approached and the elderly woman spoke to her. I saw the middle-aged woman nodding her head and pointing to herself, evidently explaining to the other woman that she was, in fact, the boy’s mother. The mother and the boy then walked west, in the direction I was going in, and as they stopped at a bench where a younger woman was sitting I heard the middle-aged woman speaking in French.

Toews’ book is furthermore partly autobiographical. The author’s own roots lie in the Mennonite community in Canada and her sister suicided in 2010.

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