‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews

AMPS coverReviewed by Alison Gillmor

Known for combining comedy and sadness, Miriam Toews takes that distinctive tonal mix even further in this fierce, powerful family story, the Manitoba writer’s sixth novel. The first person narration is frequently funny, conversational, even chatty, but just when you start to feel like you’re getting half-drunk with old friends on a back porch in Wolseley, a sudden surge of grief takes your legs out from under you. All My Puny Sorrows—the title is taken from a Coleridge poem—is a story of age, change, loss, sickness and family sorrow, told with furious tenderness and harrowing humour.

Miriam Toews cartoon

Miriam Toews, by Dale Cummings

AMPS centres on two sisters. Smart, cynical and almost Gallic in her glamour, Elfrieda Von Riesen is a globally renowned musician with an adoring husband—which sounds perfect, except that Elf doesn’t want to live anymore, having battled depression and mental illness most of her life. Yolandi, the narrator, just wants to keep her sister alive. Meanwhile, her own life is a messy muddle that includes a disintegrated marriage, a possibly disastrous move to Toronto, some wayward teenage children, and perpetual money problems. (In an adorably improbable comic gambit, Toews has made her fictionalized stand-in an author of horsey teen novels, who scrapes by penning the Rodeo Rhonda YA series while lugging around the manuscript of her “Real Novel” in a plastic shopping bag.)

The sisters are different but tightly bound together, a tricky dynamic that Toews has explored in A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans. Yoli sums up their problem: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Across a hospital bed in the psych ward, the sisters argue, in that jokey way sisters often do, even though the stakes are (literally) life and death. Ultimately, they arrive at a painful place where family love and individual autonomy clash. If Elf really truly wants to die, then what is Yoli supposed to do? Should she hold tighter, or should she let go? At one point, Yoli pleads with Elf to fight, and Elf points out she’s been fighting for thirty years.

Toews draws on her own experience in this highly personal work. Regular readers will recognize recurring themes and variations on familiar characters and family patterns, like the feisty but confused kid sister and the restless, reckless older sister. Toews also revisits East Village, the fictionalized Manitoba Mennonite town that is (more or less) Steinbach, in flashbacks that relate the girls’ childhood in the 1960s and ’70s. In East Village, church elders arrive in sober-suited lines to chastise families who can’t or won’t conform, and higher education is considered suspect. When Elf takes up music and wants to study abroad, the elders darkly suggest that “she’ll get ideas”—ideas being viewed as disorderly and disreputable things.

These sections also introduce Jakob, their sad, gentle father, whose love of books the town considers “dangerous and unmanly,” and Lottie, their indomitably optimistic and matter-of-fact mother. Lottie says things like “Go fly a kite,” and “See you in the funny papers,” and is full of arcane maternal advice. (When they are walking through a desert on a family trip, she tells them to make kissing sounds to ward off rattlesnakes.)

Interspersed with these glimpses into the girls’ early years, the narrative flashes forward into the present, with middle-of-the-night phone calls that bring Yolandi back from Toronto fearing for her sister’s life, and then long days of underground hospital tunnels and cold coffee and fighting with nurses. At some point, Lottie’s sister Tina arrives, another unsinkable woman whom Yoli calls “the Iggy Pop of old Mennonite ladies.”

Winnipeg itself is a character, having taken on layers of memory and association since Toews’s own move to Toronto. We get an almost lover-like yearning not just for lyrical subjects like summer weather (“It was a typical prairie storm, angry with the dryness it had been forced to endure”) but for goofy things like drinking on Garbage Hill and driving over potholes.

The novel’s plot is simple—much of it has to do with waiting and hoping—so that the work really comes down to voice. Toews is the queen of voice, and the narrative in AMPS is likeable and immediate and often laugh-out-loud funny. At one point, Yoli relates that her mother has always been much in demand for eulogies because of a “breezy style that was playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating,” a summary that could just as well apply to Toews’s own writing.

As usual with Toews, she riffles through her comprehensive mental catalogue for the smallest specifics of past decades, like North Star runners and banana-seat bicycles and getting home for the 6:00 p.m. start time of The Wonderful World of Disney. She explores the inner lives of children with insight and generosity, and understands the endless self-absorption of adolescents, not just describing but also empathizing with girls who practice faces in the mirror and know all the words to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Toews also writes passionately about hypocrisy and fear and the almost medieval stigma that still surrounds mental illness.  Comparing the treatment of Tina, who experiences a “cardiac event” and ends up in a different ward, with the treatment of Elf, Yoli decides that if you have to go into the hospital, “you want to go in for your heart and not your head.” This line of anger runs through this book, with Toews raging against rule-bound medical bureaucrats who can’t make eye contact, and sanctimonious Mennonite elders with their “bland pat-o-cake faces” who believe that depression is somehow a sin. In human being terms, Toews absolutely should rail against these things. In literary terms, however, this is sometimes too easy. Repression and rebellion may be the twin foundations of modern Menno lit, but Toews occasionally slips into a “cool girls against the world” dynamic that feels too wrapped up and simple.

There are also some structural issues. Yoli’s “real novel” is the story of someone marooned at sea and someone else left on shore, the two unable to communicate, and at one point Yoli admits, sheepishly, that she’s still working out the structure. This is a problem with AMPS, too: Much of the novel feels like a long spell in a hospital waiting room, and while this can seem intimate, urgent and intense, it can also seem static.

Toews avoids sweeping, romantic pronouncements about life and death and art. In fact, in a final dark plot twist, she suggests that books can’t save anyone. But Toews does believe that survivors can be called back into life by language, an idea that the novel itself proves, with its very human mix-up of hope and pain and laughter. At one deeply sad, weirdly funny point, Yoli is talking to her mother about the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa: “He’s a poet, this is his book, but he’s dead now. He killed himself.”

“Oh brother,” her mother says. “Who hasn’t.”

Well, exactly.

Knopf | 336 pages |  $29.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0345808004

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