All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

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Review by Victoria Best

At the funeral service of an aunt who has died unexpectedly, our narrator, Yolandi, notices a toddler creep up to the urn on the dias and inspect its contents. Before long, curiosity has gotten the better of the child, and whilst his unnoticing mother delivers a eulogy to the congregation, he sticks a ‘dusty’ hand into the ashes and brings it to his mouth. At this point the child’s father comes to the rescue and the mother finally notices what’s happening, but reassured that all is now under control, she ‘turned calmly back to the microphone and finished her story about Tina and her van and I learned another thing, which is just because someone is eating the ashes of your protagonist doesn’t mean you stop telling the story.’

This is such a good example of the combination of horror and humour, of irreverence for the terrible afflictions of life and simultaneous acceptance of them, that characterises Miriam Toews’ aching but brilliant novel. Based on the story of her own family, All My Puny Sorrows is about two sisters: Elfrieda, or Elf, who is a beautiful, highly talented concert pianist with a loving husband and a devoted agent, and Yolandi, or Yoli, a writer of rodeo-themed YA novels, with two children by two different men, a divorce in process and a strong sense of her own flaws and limitations. Yet it is Elfrieda who wants to die and Yoli who spends most of the novel frantically thinking up ways to keep her alive.

Life on the knife edge is a sort of theme that runs through Yoli’s family, her father having committed suicide when she was young. When her great grandparents were murdered in Russia, her grandfather survived by burying himself in a pile of manure. He then emigrated with many others of his Mennonite community to Canada, where Yoli’s father was born. Yoli looks back on this family history and reflects that ‘suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia.’ The Mennonite community is portrayed as full of disapproval and ruthless crushing of spirits. (Elf in her cheerily subversive adolescent years manages to whip up a hundred signatures on a petition to change their village’s name to Shangri-la by telling them ‘the name was from the Bible and meant a place of no pride’.) Her mother’s response is to become a social worker and then a therapist catering to a ‘steady stream of sad and angry Mennonites’ who came to the house ‘usually in secret because therapy was seen as lower even than bestiality because at least bestiality is somewhat understandable in isolated farming communities.’ And yet what really comes across from Yoli’s family is their wholehearted resistance to seeking help themselves. Her mother’s response to the arrival of the ambulance when a lawnmower accident deprives her of two toes is ‘what on earth are you guys doing here?’ Much more problematic is Elf’s strenuous disgust for the help offered to her:

Elf was up in arms, gnashing her teeth against the smarmy self-help racket that existed only to sell books and anaesthetize the vulnerable and allow the so-called “helping” profession to bask in self-congratulation for having done what they could. They’d make lists! They’d set goals! They’d encourage their patients to do one “fun” thing a day! 

Elf’s existential despair is far too overwhelming and devastating for such wafer-thin support, and over the course of the novel she will attempt suicide on several occasions. Her emaciated body lies mostly silent and shrouded in a hospital bed, where, to her family’s horror, doctors and nurses treat her like a wilful child. Unwilling to die alone, Elf begs Yoli to take her to Switzerland for an assisted suicide and Yoli wrestles with her own conscience and the dreadful situation they find themselves in, traipsing back and forth to the hospital, exhausted and over-stretched, never sure what Elf will do to herself next.

Pitted against the desperate sadness of this story are three formidable powers. One is the extraordinary humour Miriam Toews manages to find in the bleakest of situations, the other is the matter-of-factness with which Yoli and her family approach the crises they find themselves in (when her father dies they discover seventy dollars on him, ‘and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.’) Finally, there’s the amazing strength of love that binds Yoli to her family and friends, the tender and loyal community that holds her up in the warmth of a genuine embrace: ‘We’d been through all of this before. We loved each other. We fought for each other. When worlds collapsed, we were buried in the rubble together and when we were dug out of the rubble and rescued, we all celebrated together.’ This is no idle promise, no wishful thinking. Yoli and her mother are up against the worst a family can face, and the only thing that holds them all together and keeps them sane is love. Which they know is far from negligible.

Although this is a tragic story, it is equally full of hope and inspiration, and the ending is exactly right. Stock up with tissues (the happy bits are almost worse than the sad ones for jerking tears) but don’t miss this novel. It is real and true and powerful in the way very little fiction manages to be, and an extraordinary accomplishment.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny editors.

Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows (Faber, 2014), 336 pages.

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