Book review: All my puny sorrows by Miriam Toews

This book was on my to-read pile for quite a long time.  I resisted reading it because of its sad and serious subject matter.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I am not sorry I did.  Though emotionally raw at times, it also has wonderful comic moments, and in its examination of suicidal depression and its effects on the family of those afflicted, it is amazing.

The novel focuses on Yolandi (Yoli) and Elfrieda (Elf), two sisters.  Yoli is the narrator; her conflict is trying to determine how to help her older sister who has repeatedly attempted suicide.  She desperately wants her sister to live though she knows that her sister wants, just as desperately, to die.  The book is an examination of the many emotions Yoli experiences:  sorrow, confusion, guilt, anger, fear, and frustration.

One of the things Yoli tries to understand is why Elf cannot be happy since her life is seemingly perfect:  she is beautiful, she is beloved by many, she has financial security, and she even has world-wide acclaim because of her talent as a pianist.  She asks why Elf suffers from such fathomless sadness (90 – 91):

Did Elf have a terminal illness?  Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die?  Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion?

Ironically, it is Yoli whose life is more of a failure (111):

Listen! I want to shout at her.  If anyone’s gonna kill themselves it should be me.  I’m a terrible mother for leaving my kids’ father and other father.  I’m a terrible wife for sleeping with another man.  Men.  I’m floundering in a dying non-career.

Yet she continues to muddle through.

What comes across very clearly is the author’s unwillingness to pass judgment.  Yoli cannot always understand her sister’s depression, but she does not blame her for feeling as world weary as she does:  “She doesn’t need forgiving” (40).    All that the author has is compassion for those suffering with mental illness, a compassion missing from society.  Toews knows that mental illness gives one invisibility:  “they think I’m insane so they look away which is the same as being invisible” (94).

Toews, however, is less willing to be non-judgmental with mental-health-care providers (176):

Imagine a psychiatrist sitting down with a broken human being saying, I am here for you, I am committed to your care, I want to make you feel better, I want to return your joy to you, I don’t know how I will do it but I will find out and then I will apply one hundred percent of my abilities, my training, my compassion and my curiosity to your health – to your well-being, to your joy.  I am here for you and I will work very hard to help you.  I promise.  If I fail it will be my failure, not yours.  I am the professional.  I am the expert.  You are experiencing great pain right now and it is my job and my mission to cure you from your pain.  I am absolutely committed to your care. . . . I know you’re suffering.  I know you are afraid.  I love you.  I want to cure you and I won’t stop trying to help you.  You are my patient.  I am your doctor.  You are my patient.

Likewise, she has no difficulty pointing a finger at the “usual squad of perpetual [Mennonite] disapprovers” (251).  She says to the “Mennonite men in church with tight collars and bulging necks” (181):

You can’t go around terrorizing people and making them feel small and shitty and then call them evil when they destroy themselves.

Characterization is outstanding.  A reader may not have experience with the type of depression from which Elf suffers, but he/she will have no difficulty having compassion for her.  Because of the flashbacks to Elf’s earlier life, we see her as a real human being.  We see the contrast between the defiant and irrepressible free spirit Elf was and the emaciated woman who takes refuge in silence.  Her passing can be seen only as a tragedy.

What surprised me in the book is the humour.  There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.  During a memorial service, a toddler manages to open the urn and begins putting the ashes of the deceased in his mouth.  The toddler’s mother just continues with her story, and Yoli concludes (254),

I learned . . . that just because someone is eating the ashes of your protagonist doesn’t mean you stop telling the story.

I loved the style of the book.  On the one hand, it is very erudite with its many literary and pop culture allusions, but it is also “playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating” (243).

The book offers no definitive answer to how to live life with its joy and its real and puny sorrows.  Perhaps a suggestion can be found in a wonderful analogy included:   Yoli is writing a novel about a harbourmaster who ends up “not being able to get off this ship and not being at all prepared for a journey” (190).  We all try to navigate through life the best we can even though we are often unprepared for the voyage.  Sometimes we may have “to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life” (316).  Or maybe life “should just move really fast, like pedal to the metal, so it doesn’t get boring. . . . You want to go in, get the job done, and get out.  Like . . . septic tank cleaning” (200).

This book won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and appeared on year-end best-book lists in Canada, the U.S., and England.  I do not understand why it didn’t win the Scotiabank Giller Prize for which it was shortlisted because it far surpasses the chosen winner.

doreen-yakabuskiAbout the author: Doreen Yakabuski, a Barry’s Bay native, credits the Barry’s Bay Public Library and the Madonna House Lending Library for cultivating her love of reading. After a career as an English teacher/teacher-librarian in Timmins, she and her husband, Jack Vanderburg, settled near Cornwall. Now, Doreen reviews books on her blog:   She can be spotted in the Valley from time to time.

Editor’s note: After studying the recent reading lists of local book clubs, Doreen Yakabuski suggested to The Current that Toews’ work might appeal to readers in the Madawaska Valley. 

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