I picked up Miriam Toews’ newest novel, Women Talking, in the airport recently. I felt very lucky because it ticked so many boxes for me – I had run out of reading material on a work trip so really needed a book, it was in those new resell displays at the news stand so it was discounted enough to get through my NO NEW BOOK PURCHASES embargo, it fits with my vow to read more Canadian literature, and it was published in 2018.
Toews has included a note at the beginning of the novel, characterizing it as a fictional reaction to horrific real-life events that occurred in Bolivia where the women and children in a Mennonite community woke up regularly to find that they had been sexually assaulted in the night but having no memory of anything having taken place. The men of the community dismissed this as simply their imaginations or attributed it to demons, these terrible attacks on those ranging in age from babies to the elderly. The attacks took place over FOUR YEARS, and eventually it was discovered that some men had been using animal anesthetic to knock the children and women unconscious and then attacking them. It is unbelievable and all too believable all at the same time.
The novel itself takes place over two days. The women in the colony have been left behind when the men have gone to the city to try and bail out the eight men who have been arrested. They are meeting to discuss what they are going to do next; all of them are illiterate of course, so the notes of the meeting are kept by August Epp, a Mennonite who was excommunicated and is considered as less than a man by many in the community after he returns to Bolivia from England. August narrates the story for the reader, in his role as an outsider. He records the debate over whether to stay and fight, leave or do nothing. The women are angry and frightened, not very worldly but intensely curious, and very desperate to save themselves and their children. The novel consists mostly of their philosophical debates, sometimes gentle and sometimes fierce. It is absolutely fascinating, a meditation on patriarchy and forgiveness. The book takes its time, despite the compressed timeframe, and Toews is careful to show how the women become increasingly comfortable with both anger and uncertainty as the book progresses. It has incredible tension and I felt like I was cooped up in the barn with them and kept whispering to the characters as the discussion progressed.
Toews is herself a Mennonite, so would likely have been quite sensitive to this series of events when it was reported. I also think that she, like many women in 40s and 50s, start to really see the world that we have grown up in. She is angry, and I certainly can’t blame her. In this interview, Toews says:
“My anger toward my Mennonite community and my love for it go hand in hand,” she explains. “I’ve seen first-hand the harm done by fundamentalism, how the male elders are using the arbitrary rules that they’ve extrapolated from scripture to maintain control.
“Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and less willing to let things slide. I’m not afraid of what the Mennonite patriarchy and power are going to say or do. I’ve also recently become a grandmother. And I feel a new urgency to say these things.”
The book itself is excellent; my opinion is that it is probably Toews’ best novel, and I hope it wins a slew of awards. It is carefully paced, very focused, and each of the characters is distinct from the other. Although she obviously began writing it several years ago, it certainly seems timely and reflective of the discussions that are going on right now. Women are talking and getting comfortable with being angry; things are going to happen and change. I know it.
CBR10 Bingo category: So Shiny