Book Review – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

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Some books should come with a warning. Something like, “You’re probably going to cry before this book is through. Even if you think you’re not a crier.”

All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf Canada, 2014) is Miriam Toews’ sixth novel. Like the first five, this novel involves Mennonite characters. Though while being Mennonite is key to our main characters, it isn’t necessarily key to the novel. Our narrator is Yolandi or Yoli. She’s forty-something, twice divorced, two kids with two different fathers. She’s drifting in her career, in her relationships, in her own life. In comparison is Yoli’s older sister, Elfrieda. Elf is six years older, an accomplished international pianist, happily married. Elf has just landed in the hospital after a suicide attempt.

Yoli rushes to Winnipeg to be with her sister and mother, to encourage her beloved older sister to heal. But how do you help someone who doesn’t want to live anymore? Does there come a time when the most helpful thing is to let them die?

The present course of the novel is artfully interrupted with flashes of Elf and Yoli’s childhood, growing up in the small Mennonite community of East Village. A place where Elf learns piano in secret, the elders of the village advising her parents not to let her get fancy ideas about going to university. We see the ways that this family doesn’t fit in and the ways that it slowly begins to detach from the community. At the same time we see the closeness of an extended family – Yoli tells us she has 56 first cousins – who fly across country to be together, who are tough and loving, and get through things, both buoyed and destroyed by their common history of tragedy.

And despite the tears, this book is funny. Yoli is a hilarious, goofy, and loveable narrator. She’s falling apart but working desperately to keep what remains of her family together. I loved the scenes with her teenage daughter – bouncing back and forth between teenage frustration and an endearing closeness.

Toews writes Elf with a lot of sympathy. She would be an easy character to become frustrated with – the sister who, seemingly, has everything she could want, and yet cares about none of it, including the people who love her. And yet Toews makes her pain real and, because, we see her through Yoli’s eyes, we learn to love her a little too. I did find the relationship between Elf and her husband, Nic, poorly fleshed out. It seemed to me that Nic would be suffering just as much, if not more, than Yoli and would perhaps be the one most likely to keep Elf in the land of the living. Instead, he’s only a background character and even takes off for a trip in the midst of Elf’s hospital stay. While it makes sense that the sister relationship is the one central to Yoli, I found Nic’s absence wholly unbelievable.

Toews continues to cement herself as a powerful figure in Canadian literature. I have another book by her on my To Read list and I’m looking forward to it even more now.

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