Monday, January 19, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows

<b>Miriam Toews</b> – The Flying Troutmans and Dede Crane – The Cult of ...
This is the face of an amazingly compassionate, clear-eyed woman. A Canadian writer who has garnered many literary awards, Miriam Toews had me at hello. I'm not even sure where I read about her new novel, "All My Puny Sorrows," but you can bet I'll be going back and taking a look at her earlier work. After all, how many writers can take the subject of suicide, have a serious discussion about it, yet keep you chuckling, even laughing as you read?
You might think that this wasn't a very wise choice for me right now but in fact, I loved the honesty of this book. I'm sorry to say that, after reading a bit more about Ms. Toews, I discovered that there's much in her novel that is autobiographical. I imagine that it was a cathartic exercise for her.
This is the story of an extended family and the love and acceptance that sees it through some very hard times indeed. Two sisters, Elfriedie and Yolandi, so different yet so close, grow up in a small Mennonite town in Canada with a painful stigma hanging over their heads. Their dad just up and walked away one day, ending it all by stepping in front of a train.
Elfriedie was the golden child, a prodigy whose mom fought the Mennonite elders so that she could bring a piano into their home. Yolandi always seemed to be in trouble, the wrong crowd, some drugs, unreliable men. Elf is now a world renowned concert pianist, traveling the world, bringing audiences to their knees with her symphonic music. Yoli barely makes ends meet trying to raise two kids by two different guys and write a novel in her spare time.
But there's a sense, throughout this book, that Elf is ethereal to the point that she almost seems invisible. She has a husband, Nic, who worships her yet we feel no bond between them. Yoli is a real flesh and blood woman, one we might know and like, a dear friend, a conflicted soul. You see, Elfriedie, after several failed suicide attempts, wants Yoli to help her die.
What? Why? you might ask. But of course, that's the nature of mental illness, isn't it? There is no rhyme or reason in a wish to end one's own life. If it could be explained, it could be stopped. Elf tries to formulate words that might illustrate how she feels. She tells her sister that she has a glass piano inside her that might shatter at any time. As Toews tells it it's a devastating admission.
Toews does a superlative job of evoking the psychiatric ward where her sister remains for much of the novel. The complexity of managing medication for a volatile patient, the yen to aid the family by breaking a few of the more ridiculous rules, and the willingness to believe a patient who insists they are well enough to go home, are all very realistic.
Even more evocative, though, is the painful struggle that Yoli goes through as she first tries to pump her sister up with empty words of encouragement, comes to accept that a genetic flaw runs through the family, and considers the consequences and repercussions if she actually accedes to Elf's final choice. It's complicated and thought provoking yet handled in a deeply humane way. Selfish or selfless? It's not for us to say.

1 comment:

ramo nocic said...
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