All My Puny Sorrows
San Francisco, CA
“She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” If you’re looking for a one-sentence synopsis of All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews’ latest novel, you could do far worse than that brief excerpt from the book. Shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize, which is to be awarded on March 23, this story of those two enemies—sisters caught in a struggle with death, life and each other—takes on a daunting list of weighty issues: love, mental illness, the damage done as well as the support offered by family, and, ultimately, the dark attractions of suicide. But what really gives this book its sense of life and its emotional power is the way in which Toews leavens those heavy issues with an oddball quirkiness and sense of humor that makes its sometimes-grim events bearable and pulls the reader inexorably into her story.
That story is told from the point of view of the ostensibly more stable of the two sisters. Yolandi is a writer of children’s books who is trying to expand the scope of her work with a novel-in-progress—one that spends a large portion of the narrative traveling about with her in a plastic bag. With two husbands in the rear-view mirror, two children who have issues of their own, a troubled history, and a temper that often flares out of control, she seems an unlikely anchor for a family that is constantly perched on the brink of disaster. However, as the story moves on, her very adaptability to circumstances, along with her ability to balance living on the edge and keeping things in perspective, becomes the core of strength that keeps them all from completely falling apart.
Her older sister, Elfrieda (Elf), would seem to be a more likely rock. Growing up an apparently tough rabble-rouser, she fights against the strictures of the Mennonite society that stifles both sisters and their mother as well. Following her personal and artistic passions despite the resistance she faces, Elf forges a highly successful career as a concert pianist and makes a stable marriage. But there’s a fly in the ointment: a darkness that extends to the very core of Elfreida’s being, an inability to see any rhyme or reason to life’s rituals and demands. When music, which has been her only escape from that darkness, no longer provides her with any solace, she is totally cast adrift and sentenced to a life that becomes little more than a series of hospital beds and increasingly unsuccessful attempts at connection with her sister.
Toews makes a point of showing us the roots of that connection and gives several looks back at their lives to illustrate both the depths of the connection, and its inability to ever completely poke through the curtain of despair that surrounds Elfrieda. In a particularly disturbing episode, the two girls barricade themselves in the family’s bathroom during a Christmas dinner. Elfrieda is simply unable to emerge and take her part in the ceremony that is a family Christmas celebration, despite Yolondi’s encouragement and a series of entreaties from their mother on the other side of the door. For Elfrieda, the mere fact of existence often becomes more than she can bear, and her dread of life and its consequences become a tidal wave that not only poisons her own life, but also begins to pull down the family that is trying to save her.
The unmoored nature of that family is made obvious from the novel’s first line. As we enter the story, the family’s home, one that their father had built himself, is being hauled away to make room for the expansion of a car dealership. No one seems to know where that house will wind up, and the family is quickly shuffled off to a new home that is within sight of where they’d lived before. That situation, one that feels as if it has no foundation, is then placed firmly in the middle of a society that lives by hard and fast rules and regulations. The Mennonite culture that rules their small Manitoba town has firm ideas of how things should be run, especially about how women should behave and how men should exert their power and authority. Subverting those rules becomes a goal that almost all of the women in the book pursue, though with widely differing strategies. The sisters’ mother somehow seems to float above the fray, managing to live her life through a canny mixture of denial and self-confidence, while the sisters themselves have a much harder path.
The strictness of Mennonite culture has long been a major subject for Toews. She grew up in a Mennonite family in a small Manitoba town herself, and that personal history takes center stage in much of her work. Her 2000 book, Swing Low, is an account of her father’s suicide, and several of the episodes from that book are reimagined as events from the lives of the two sisters in All My Puny Sorrows. But that process of reimagination is not simply a way for the author to examine her own past. It also serves as a commentary on the ways that her characters themselves use art to transform life. The book’s title comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whom Yolondi refers to as “Elf’s ex-boyfriend”) about his dead sister. The books that the sisters read, the music they listen to, the various art projects that they and their other family members find themselves involved in all attest to the role that art can play in helping people to understand and deal with their own lives.
That ability to use art to bring things to life extends to Toews’s style as well. While the playfulness of her prose can sometimes threaten to go over the top (“The moon was full and hanging low like a pregnant cat,” for example), her style is far more often a remarkably effective way to capture the cultural conflicts her characters live with:
I’m at an age where I’m stuck between two generations, one using the term “getting laid” and the other “hooking up,” so what are you supposed to call it?
And while the obstinacy and pig-headedness of those characters may have the reader longing to grab them by the shoulders and shake them at times, it is precisely that quality that makes them so real to us, and makes their story so involving and affecting.
Barnes has written for publications from the Wall Street Journal to ARTnews and has worked as a graphic designer and editor.