Yolandi and Elfrieda are sisters raised in an isolated, stifling, patriarchal community of Russian Mennonite immigrants in rural Canada. Their parents buy Elf a forbidden piano to give her an outlet, and she pours everything into her music, leaving home at 17 to study in Oslo, eventually becoming a world-renowned concert pianist. But her life is weighed down by the crippling pain of depression, and she ends up in the hospital after yet another suicide attempt.
In All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, everyone sees Elf as one of those people who have it all: beauty, talent, success, admiration among her peers and the public. Why could she possibly want to die? Even her own sister thinks this way and tells her so constantly, alternatively begging her to stay and berating her for wanting to die.
But this book isn’t really about Elf. It’s about Yoli, going through her own struggles to keep everything together. She’s been divorced once and is going through another. She can’t seem to finish her latest book, a first departure from a string of mildly-successful YA novels. Her son has left home for college, and her daughter is only a few years away from the same. Her mother is getting older and has had numerous health problems. She already lost Elf once, in a way, when Elf left home at 17. She can’t consider life without her big sister.
This is the first book I’ve read that so beautifully and painfully represents both sides. Yoli does everything she can to let Elf know how much she needs her to stay, to be strong, to fight to get better, which paradoxically only makes it harder for Elf, but what else is she supposed to do? How can she stop fighting for her sister’s life?
But Elf is in gut-wrenching pain and sees no other escape. The only treatment she’s presented with are all the things that only bring her more anguish. She doesn’t want to talk. She doesn’t want to eat. She doesn’t want to be around anyone or to hear about how much they love her and need her to survive.
I know that pain. Depression is like being in an abusive relationship with yourself. When it’s bad, you can’t even consider any way to escape. When it’s good, you live in constant fear of that next strike, fear that the next time will be worse, fear that one day, it will kill you. You try to be better, to do better, hoping the relationship will improve, but that hope eventually turns to despair with the realization that it’s never going to change, that the next bad time isn’t a question of if but instead a matter of when.
But I also knew that I couldn’t talk to anyone about any of this. The stigma — personal and professional and financial — was such a powerful deterrent that I couldn’t even bring myself to try to find out what was going so horribly wrong in my own mind, didn’t understand until a few years ago that I had depression and had been going through episodes since I was 8 years old.
Miriam Toews brilliantly addresses the bumbling ways that we as a society treat people with mental health issues: like children crying out for structure and tough love; like tragic figures to coddle lest we upset them; like criminals to be locked up, taking away their freedom so they can’t hurt themselves, or more likely, so they can’t hurt us. One of my favorite quotes came after Yoli and Elf’s aunt was admitted to the cardio ward of the same hospital after having a heart attack. Yoli notices how differently their aunt is treated, how differently the doctors and nurses speak to her. In her narration, Yoli says, “If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.”
The whole book is full of insights and music and poetry and literature. It’s full of laughter and pain. Most of all, it’s full of life, and respect for all of the different ways we experience our lives. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I know it will stay with me for a long time.
I’m writing this review a few hours after learning of Anthony Bourdain’s death. At times like this, I’m thankful for the community of lovable weirdos here at CBR and Pajiba, and I come here to console and to be consoled. I weep for my own loss, for his family and friends, but I’m shattered for him and the pain he must have been going through. We need to do better to get help for those who want it and to be compassionate with those who may be beyond our help. I’m trying to start with myself. It ain’t easy, but what else are we supposed to do?