Sunday, February 08, 2015

Reading group: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Back to consensus. Ever since I reviewed this novel in the summer, I have been recommending it to all and sundry, so naturally I suggested it for the group, and to my delight it was received with enthusiasm by all present. It's the story of the struggle of Yolandi, a tumultuous forty-something single mother and writer of young adult novels, with the desire to die of her elder sister, the beautiful, famous and successful pianist Elfrieda. Narrated by Yolandi with a slicing wit in a kind of time-lapse as-it-happens (sometimes in present tense, sometimes in a past tense recording just-happened events), the account follows Yoli's struggle to counter and dispel Elfrieda's death-wish as she visits her in hospital (as the book opens Elfrieda has made yet another suicide attempt), and to understand it, mining for reasons their background: childhood in a repressive north-Canadian Mennonite community with its own history of persecution by the Bolsheviks and exile from Russia, a father who has already committed suicide, and a mother motored by a fighting spirit and eternal optimism.

The discussion was short, since there was little to argue about: everyone loved the book, and everyone agreed that it was both laugh-out-loud funny and immensely moving and tragic - Doug said, to nods all round, that most of the time he didn't know whether to laugh or cry and often ended up doing both at the same time - and that there's a kind of unique alchemy in the way Toews achieves this effect. People thought the book brilliantly written, and loved the light touch with which it conveyed its deeply serious issues. We weren't entirely without some demurring: although it's clearly not the intention of the book, one person saw Elfrieda as selfish since, although she is made perfectly aware of the devastating effects on her family, her death wish is long-term and rational and her suicide attempts planned and orchestrated rather than irrational actions made in sudden moments of despair. No one else however shared this objection, feeling that despair can be ongoing. John pointed out also the immense stress on Elfrieda of being a world-touring concert pianist. Mark felt there was too much of what he called 'name-dropping': Yoli, Elfrieda and their mother constantly quote from literature and philosophy, and the title of the book, 'All My Puny Sorrows', is a quote from Coleridge - Elfrieda's 'romantic-poet boyfriend', as Yoli calls him - which as a teenager Elfrieda scrawled as an acronym graffito signature - AMPS - over their little Mennonite town. Doug rather agreed with Mark. He said he thought it especially towards the end, when the family quote whole poems: it seemed somehow forced, and geared to make authorial points. No one else had this problem, but felt rather that the family in the novel is so clearly steeped in literature that all of this was convincingly realistic. Beside which, one of the novel's strong points is that a reliance on literature and philosophy can't stop Elfrieda choosing death: 'Books are what save us. Books are what don't save us.'

After being discharged from hospital, Elfreida makes another suicide attempt and ends up there again, and once again Yoli has left her Toronto home, and her children to fend for themselves, to be at Elfrieda's Winnipeg hospital bedside and help support their mother, this time reinforced by their mother's sister Tina. Doug said he felt that at this point the novel became a bit repetitive. No one else minded this, repetition being in the nature of the situation, but also there are developments. In this section not only does Yoli move on from trying to persuade Elf against suicide to struggling with Elf's request to help her die, the focus shifts more closely towards Yoli and we see the effects on her. Also, in this section there is a drama concerning the aunt, Tina.

Such complaints were however only mild, and the general agreement was that this is a quite brilliant novel that we were thrilled to have read.

My own review of the book can be read here.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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