All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Miriam Toews has written 6 other novels, although this is the first that I have read. My first impression was that title is a little odd, but don’t let that put you off this book; it is in fact a quote from Coleridge’s poem To a Friend, with an Unfinished Poem.
A poignant tragi-comedy (if there is such a thing) this is a sad story that makes you laugh at the same time. It’s autobiographical to a certain extent, as Toews’ father committed suicide when she was young, followed by her sister 10 years later. And it is also the story is of two sisters – Yolanda and Elfrieda (the book is narrated by Yolanda) who grew up in a Mennonite Community in Canada.
Elf was wild and rebellious in her youth, and her piano playing was certainly not encouraged by the Mennonite elders. Elfrieda grows up to become a talented concert pianist, hugely successful with a darling husband and caring people around her. Yolanda, on the other hand, is an author of romance books who, somewhat ironically, has gone through two husbands, is a single mother to two children with different fathers, has no money. Even though she has written an adult, the story is confusing for her and her readers. But of these two very different sisters, it is Elf, the successful one, who wants to end her life. Just weeks before her world tour, she makes an unsuccessful attempt at her life, and Yoli is determined to keep her alive.
This might sound rather morbid and dark, but it actually isn’t. I found it sort of enlightening. It looks at the close relationship between the sisters through their whole life – as Yoli says “enemies who loved each other” – from when they were children. Elf is determined to talk to Yoli (the only one who really seems to understand her desires) into getting her to Switzerland so she truly can end her life. But Yoli is also a bit of a mess. We see her life as slightly off the rails – random sexual encounters, over drinking, her efforts in parenting teenagers. However, through all this she has a determination to make her frail sister happy and keep her alive.
Things spiral out of control, for both Yoli and Elf. While Elf is in hospital, their aunt suffers a cardiac arrest and the awfulness of the family traversing hospital wards from the psychiatric ward to the cardiac ward was very distressing, and the frustration of dealing with doctors who don’t communicate rang true. Amongst all these disasters, you would think Yoli herself would be contemplating ending it all, especially when she gets a text from her ex saying “I need you”, followed a minute later by the completion of the phrase: “to sign the divorce papers”. But she doesn’t, she begins to consider whether helping her sister end her life would be the right thing to do – the one thing that Elf really desires, and she contemplates the reality of trying to get Elf to Switzerland.
Although you wouldn’t think it from what I have just described, please know that there is humour in this book. The storyline may sound like something depressing to read but within these characters are real humans trying to cope – being human and understanding each other, kinship and family.