All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, Faber, RRP£12.99, 336 pages
Suicide humour is a niche skill: the writer needs bravery and an acquaintance with the act that means the gags aren’t ghoulish, but empathetic. The Canadian novelist Miriam Toews, author of six highly praised previous novels and winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction, is an old hand. Early in her new novel her narrator, Yolandi, wonders why the nurses on a psychiatric ward have removed her sister’s rings: “I guess you could choke on a ring if you decided to swallow it, or pound it against your head for several weeks non-stop until you did some damage.”
All My Puny Sorrows (a fragment of a Coleridge poem) is full of moments like this: laughter at the edge of the void. Yolandi (Yoli) is our first-person guide, daughter to a father who has already committed suicide, and sister to the depressed concert pianist Elfrieda (Elf). Yoli’s voice is by turns dry, manic, heightened to the point of hysteria, furious and profoundly sad.
One of Toews’ trademarks is the high-speed paragraph, sentences rattling at the speed of thought until it suddenly stops, pulled up by horror. For example:
“She [Yoli’s mother] hugs me in the hallway and tells me everything will be all right. I love that she tells me this again and again but I wonder sometimes if she thinks I’m an idiot … Bob Marley says it too but he says every little thing gonna be all right and that strikes me as an appropriate qualifier even if all he was doing was getting enough syllables to match the music. I remember humming that refrain over and over, singing myself to sleep with those lyrics in the days before my father kneeled in the path of a fast-moving train.”
To describe the tone as black humour wouldn’t quite do it justice. These are the jokes of someone trying to cling on to the mundanity of a sane world while a loved one repeatedly attempts to take her own life. Elf is intent on death: she has a formidable career, a husband who adores her, a mother and a sister by her bedside imploring her to live, and yet such is her extreme psychic agony that she has asked Yoli to take her to a clinic in Switzerland so she can get the job done (this after a failed bleach-drinking attempt).
Toews’ style won’t be for everyone. Those busy, cascading sentences create drama but they can also grate. She lapses into self-conscious kookiness, as when Yoli imagines a future life with her best friend, Julie, living in the countryside where they would “chop wood, pump water, fish, play the piano, sing together from the soundtracks of Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Misérables, reimagine our pasts and wait out the end of the world. Deal? Deal.” That lurch from the comically specific to the absurdly general is an overused trick, and the disarmingly casual tone can, at times, feel like it’s trying too hard to please. There is a hyperactivity to Toews’ writing that at its best supercharges the prose, but which can also distract from a powerful portrait of a family, and a mind, in crisis.
In a bid to locate the source of Elf’s pain, Yoli recounts the sisters’ childhoods in East Village, a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada. In her depiction, the Mennonites (arch-Christian followers of the 16th-century thinker Menno Simons) are oppressive sexists and the enemies of fun, bullying the town with piety. This is intimate territory for Toews. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, another Mennonite heartland. Her father was a dutiful member of the congregation, a primary school teacher – and a manic depressive who killed himself in 1998 by kneeling in front of a train. Her sister, Marjorie, killed herself in the same way 12 years later. In interviews Toews has said that writing this novel was like “bleeding on to every page”.
Toews is refreshingly open about the autobiographical nature of her writing. The charge is unavoidable: this is her third novel partially set in a Mennonite community, and mental illness has loomed in much of her work, not least the memoir of her father’s depression, Swing Low (2000), which she wrote in his voice. Many writers dodge questions about the level of fact in their fiction, feeling, as Jonathan Franzen put it in a cranky essay on the subject, “as if my powers of imagination are being challenged”. But Toews is aware of the power her past has over her work, and as long as she remains curious about it, she’s “just going to keep writing about it”.
The question is whether the past can be turned into art. In her earlier Mennonite novels – A Complicated Kindness (2004) and Irma Voth (2011) – there is a bitterness directed at the community, its elders, rules and scarring judgments, that threatens to overwhelm the narrative. All My Puny Sorrows has flashes of this tart resentment – “public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book” – but it also is rich with a tenderness born of acceptance. To write powerful fiction out of personal events of such magnitude is hard, surely almost unbearably so, but the result is a novel that reaches beyond the limits of itself.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae