Women Talking is a fictionalized story that is founded on a real story- the ‘ghost rapes’ that occurred in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in rural Bolivia between 2004 and 2009. For years, women would awake groggy, with signs that they had been sexually assaulted. Eventually one of the rapists is caught in the act; he confesses his role in the rapes and implicates 8 other men from the colony.
Toews, who is from a Mennonite community in Canada, took this horrific story and turned it into a novel, with the focus on the women. She sets her book in a renamed colony (Molotschna) during the brief interlude when many of the men from the colony have travelled into the city to free the accused rapists on bail. The women have been instructed by the colony leader that on their return they must forgive the men who raped them and accept them back into the community. The focus of the book is the conversations that a small group of the colony’s women have while they are weighing their three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. They have these conversations in a hayloft, pretending to be quilting, and the conversation is chronicled by August Epp, the sympathetic and partially outcast colony schoolteacher.
This was a quick read, and it draws out some of the inequitable gender discrepancies on the colony and the impossible position that the women are in. These vary from the practical- they cannot read or write, and have never seen a map, so they don’t know how where they can go if they leave- to the philosophical- is forgiveness really forgiveness if they don’t feel it in their hearts? Should they stay in order to follow God’s requirement that they be obedient? Who will teach their teenage boys to be better men if they leave?
For those looking for details on the true story- the actual criminal charges, what the outcome of those charges was- this is not that story (although there are many good news stories out there, including a Vice report). This is instead a chorus of women’s voices weighing out their limited options.
It felt odd that the framing voice is male. I assume that Toew’s purpose was to draw emphasis to the power of literacy, which was denied to the colony’s women, and to remind the reader that some men are allies in the fight for equality, but it still felt odd that a man was the recording voice. Maybe making a man the mouthpiece was also drawing attention to the fact that women’s stories are often told by men, framed and interpreted by people other than those to whom the voices belong.
My other critique was that there wasn’t a lot of plot, but that I think is more about my expectations for a novel- Toews titled the book “Women Talking” and it actually was about women talking so I probably should have taken her at her words. I am also grateful for a story about real life rapes that both a) aims to give agency to the victims and b) doesn’t make me so depressed I have to stop reading (John Krakaeur, I’m looking at you and Missoula). As far as recommended reads go, I’m not going to pass this on to my family friends- I’m not sure who it would be for. Instead, I would recommend another of Toews’ books, A Complicated Kindness, which is beautiful, thoughtful, bittersweet and well worth reading.
This one has been sitting on my shelf for sometime, so I’m using the cbr12bingo Repeat square to give me another square