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June 10, 2011 10:03 pm

Irma Voth

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An illustration of a Mexican desert

Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews, Faber, RRP£12.99, 272 pages

 

“What’s life without trouble?” asks a character in this strong and skilful novel by award-winning Canadian writer Miriam Toews. The central character, Irma Voth, a Mennonite teenager, wrestles with endless trouble. Her family, relocated from Canada to Mexico six years before the story begins, has problems. Events float between two ungrounded and surreal places, Canada and Mexico. The characters, like all of us, are a double helix of their pasts and the present. The mother is constantly pregnant, the father seems a religious sect autocrat, though Toews does not demonise him but cloaks him in ambiguity. At 18, Irma breaks loose and marries Jorge, a Mexican boy working for drug-runners. At the civil ceremony her veil catches on fire, though the justice of the peace tells her she is “lucky”. The couple live in a house belonging to Irma’s father, coerced into tending his cows in return for rent.

There is something very wrong with Irma – she feels dead and prays for God to help her live. After a year of marriage Jorge leaves her. Raised in the tight confines of family and religion outside the social norm, she is now alone. Her troublesome pig-headed little sister Aggie wants to come live with her. The father forbids it.

When a film crew, making a movie about the beautiful simplicity of Mennonite life, moves into the house next door, the story becomes more fragmented. The film people speak in 10-cent philosophies, describe portent-laden dreams and are sensitive and temperamental. The director, Diego, who has a red dot in the white of his left eye, hires Irma to translate for the German-Russian lead actress, Marijke, who is also a Mennonite but in this desert place feels “alone and unsure and ridiculous and afraid”. Among the touchy film crew is Wilson, who writes stories and tells Irma that he is slowly dying from incurable collapsed veins. Irma tells him part of her secret – that she had an older sister, Katie, who died in Canada.

The writing is rich with oddball observations and arresting images, as when the film crew begins to take off their clothes and Irma tells them to stop, because “all the Mennonites watching would seriously freak out and the crew would be herded up and shot and left in a field to rot and their faces sewn into soccer balls”. The making of the film, with its many tedious problems, takes over the novel. Irma’s husband Jorge comes back for a few tense days, then leaves again. By this time Aggie has weaselled her way into living with Irma. The angry father appears suddenly and says he has sold the house and they will have to move out. He threatens Diego and the film crew, bombarding them with religio-poetic non sequiturs. There is a strange, almost silent prodigal daughter scene between Irma and her father. She kneels and says “please”, he says nothing, then disappears into the dark.

Irma steps out of her must-be-dead mode. She sells Jorge’s stashed boxes for 50,000 pesos and both sisters go to see their mother who is lying in bed with a newborn baby girl. They’ve come to say goodbye, Irma tells her. The mother (straining the reader’s credulity) asks Irma to take the new baby with her. Irma accepts the infant, for what is life without trouble, especially when you are seeking expiation?

Irma names the baby Ximena; she is ferocious and demanding. They buy diapers and formula and drive to the airport, heading for Mexico City. In Acapulco they have a few hours before their connecting flight and illogically decide to go to the beach. Gustavo Mundo, their kind-hearted cab driver, takes them there and enjoys a few free hours himself, helping tend the baby. Gustavo’s warmth seems a signal that things are changing for Irma.

In Mexico City they wander around the historic Zócalo. Almost immediately Irma connects with Noehmi, one of the kindly hippie-like people who befriend her. Hubertus and Natalie hire her to work as a maid in their bed and breakfast hotel, and throw in a free room. They are willing babysitters, loan Irma money (for Aggie has lost all their money, kept in a farmacia bag, while taking a sidewalk tango lesson), buy more formula and diapers for Ximena. In the Zócalo Irma begins to live again.

One day talented Aggie shows Irma a painting she made of dead sister Katie, and tells what their mother said about Katie’s death. But Irma knows better. They sort out the lies, laying bare Irma’s guilt. Soon after this crucial conversation Diego’s Mennonite film, Camp Siete, opens. The sisters see the film and afterwards listen to Diego answering questions from the audience. What he says makes Irma ill for a week, trying to understand how she has caused so much pain and death.

The reader has to swallow some of this book on faith but there is a pay-off when finally Irma understands and acts on her need for forgiveness. Irma Voth is a parable of redemption, a powerful and favourite theme in literature since the New Testament, traceable through thousands of literary works that leave the reader with a comforting glow of hope.

Annie Proulx lives and writes in Wyoming

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