Édouard Louis, speaking recently at the London Review Bookshop, described why he writes auto-fiction. Growing up in a brutally poor household in Northern France, there had never been any books in his home, but when J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, he saw the acceptance speech on television. Teenage Édouard was baffled to hear this man describing creation of character and structure. He couldn’t comprehend why these concerns might be considered important when the deprivation in his own home was so stark. ‘Who talks about us?’ he remembers thinking. ‘I wanted my father to exist, and not someone as a metaphor.’
The work of Miriam Toews is, like that of Louis’, marked by a desire for unaffected honesty, and a discomfort with literary fabrication. Both writers have created work at once inspired and confined by intense, real-life family experiences. But while Louis’ writing extends into broader areas of the political, Toews’ has been focused more intensely on the personal: on grief, humour, sex, and mental health. Toews grew up in a remote Canadian Mennonite (an Amish-like Christian religion) community in a loving family of four. When she was thirty-four her father killed himself. Twelve years later, her elder sister did the same. Her 2001 work Swing Low is a memoir of her father, told in Toews’ imagined version of his voice. Her later novel, All My Puny Sorrows, published in 2014, also concerns a suicide in the family, this time that of her sister.
One might expect these earlier novels to be darker and more solemn than they are; in fact, Toews’ writing on death and suicide is often funny, tender, hopeful – even light-hearted. In Swing Low, the narrator recollects his life from a hospital bedroom, having suffered a depressive episode. Though in many ways a convincing portrayal, his voice is instilled with nostalgia, humour and hope, at odds with a man on the brink of suicide: in her father’s voice, Toews’ own ineluctable lightness strains out. From the hospital bed, he declares, ‘I will write my way out of this mess!’ But of course, he didn’t write his way out of the mess: it was Miriam who did that. Reading Toews is not like reading an author with a particular set of thematic interests or stylistic effects. Instead, it is closer to an aunt pulling your hand at a reunion and reciting intimate family tales and theories. There is plenty to praise in Toews’ writing, but I am struck by a feeling that to love her work is to love it (and her) familiarly. Toews’ new novel, Women Talking, marks a departure from her earlier books. It describes a real event that occurred in Manitoba, a Mennonite community in Bolivia, a more fanatical and remote setting than the one she grew up in. Between 2005 and 2009, over one hundred girls and women were abused and raped by the men in their community (often their husbands, brothers and fathers). The victims were put to sleep using an animal anaesthetic and would wake up dazed and in pain. The male leaders of the community attributed their suffering to supernatural forces or the devil. Women Talking is ‘an imagined response to these true events’.
The men have gone to the city for two days for their own safety (when three-year-old Miep’s mother Salome discovered her daughter had been attacked multiple times, she attempted to kill the perpetrators with a scythe). The novel takes place almost entirely in a barn, where the group of women use this limited time without their husbands to discuss their predicament. But in an odd turn, the novel is narrated by a man, August Epp, a former community member who the women have enlisted to take minutes because they can neither read nor write in any language other than Low German.
Most of the book consists of these minutes, written in script-like dialogue, recording what the women say to one another. While they spend much of the book discussing what to do about the men, their conversations raise larger debates – about femininity, education, power, theology. The women are presented with strong, almost stock characteristics: furious Salome, wise Agata, thoughtful Ona, etc. Their talk is often simple and earthy (Greta begins the debate with livestock metaphors, and when criticised she retorts, ‘we have been preyed upon like animals; perhaps we should respond in kind’). At first, the women attempt to debate within the confines of the accepted rules of Molotschna: ‘We will be forced to leave the colony if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in heaven.’ But life as the woman knew it has already been upended, forcing them to ask deeper questions. As Salome points out: ‘by leaving, we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible because we, the women, do not know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it… we need to submit to our husbands because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it.’ Later, during a discussion of a quote from Ecclesiastes, August notes: ‘I am struck by a thought – perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.’
Toews’ decision to have a man narrate a novel titled Women Talking appears provocative, but is a complex and often moving feature of the book. August moved to England with his parents after they were excommunicated from Molotschna (his mother Monica tried to set up a secret schoolhouse to educate the girls). He is the only one in the community who has been educated and exposed to contemporary culture. While away, he became suicidal and decided to return for a while to say goodbye before killing himself. He is allowed into the barn because the women – to his credit – don’t really consider him to be a man (at least, in the way they understand it: August is deemed unfit to help with farm work). In his minutes, he signposts when the women discuss ‘patriarchy’ or refer to themselves as ‘commodities’, reminding us that they do not know there are names for the ideas they are formulating.
August seems like a technical necessity. How could Toews, given her propensity to write in such a personal, distinctive voice, write convincingly as one of these women? In August, Toews’ perception, oddness and wild joy can co-exist with the transcription of the meeting. But August’s presence is also a source of tenderness and hope, albeit a complex one. In a society where woman have been voiceless, August is there to listen, to offer thoughts only when asked, and, in his minutes, give them a voice and a record of their trauma. The group teach him, mock him, inspire him, and in turn he uses his education to enhance their thoughts, not to affirm the superiority of his own. But the women also highlight the limits of his education. Ona asks August to take the minutes in an effort to lift him out of his depression. She acts on well-tuned emotional intelligence, something that August does not fully grasp until the last pages of the novel.
Despite the solemnity of the task, Women Talking is as steeped in humour as any of Toews’ other novels, but the tone of her humour has altered. The jokes in Women Talking, understandably, don’t have the intricacy or risk of the ones shared with her family in her earlier books. The moments of laughter are often in response to August’s singularity, as when Agata, a grandmother, asks August, ‘Why do you talk that way? You shit like any other man, why can’t you talk like one?’ Yet Toews’ occasional disregard for irony can result in scenes that feel a little too wholesome, as when August shares his love of Coleridge to the group: ‘Ona had looked up, her eyes on me, and silently mouthed Coleridge’s words with me. Sympathy and love.’ It’s as if that aunt who was feeding you the poignant stories before is now gripping your hand a little too hard and making you squirm. Toews’ sentimentality seems part of a deliberate disinterest in sophistication or refined style. It lends her work emotional power, but at times risks undermining the intelligence of her ideas.
Women Talking is a claustrophobic novel that can be difficult to read but, unexpectedly, it can also delight. Even in the face of sexual degradation, violence and horror, Toews’ irrepressible spirit pours through, just as it does when confronted with depression and suicide in Swing Low and All My Puny Sorrows. This novel is an imagined response and very much a Toewsian one. In interviews, the actual women of the story seemed concerned with the same questions Toews explores – fight or flight; damn or forgive – but the real-life ending was not as clear-cut, nor as hopeful. While eight men were arrested and convicted for the attacks in 2009, rumours of rapes in Manitoba were still ongoing in 2013. The women were encouraged to put better locks on their windows.