Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Sisters have a strange bond. They fight like cats and dogs but they love each other right down to the marrow of their beings. They can frustrate each other, annoy each other, even dislike each other at times, but they are still connected in inexplicable ways. Often they find their roles in the family and they hew to those roles forever after. In Miriam Toews' latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows, there are two sisters caught in their self-defined roles as one of them actively seeks to leave this world and the other struggles to keep her sister in it.

Elfrieda (Elf) is a world-renowned concert pianist. She is happily married to a wonderful, thoughtful, and loving man. She's successful beyond all imagining. And yet she is deeply depressed, attempting suicide regularly. Yolandi (Yoli) appears to be the diametric opposite of her older sister. Given half a chance, she consistently bollockses up her life and needs to be bailed out by her sister. Despite her chronic money problems, the difficulties of single parenting, and multiple failed relationships behind her, she is generally pretty happy. Or she would be if her beloved sister wasn't so determined to kill herself. Not only does Elf want to die but she wants Yoli to help her, concocting schemes for them to go overseas together where Elf can get enough of certain drugs to finally succeed in dying. What does Yoli owe Elf though? Does she owe it to her sister to help her or does she owe it to her to try and keep her safe? Yoli wants to be the loyal, unquestioning, and adoring sister she's always been but this leaves her torn about the right thing to do.

Elf is not the first in her family to contemplate suicide. In fact, Elf and Yoli's father committed suicide himself. His quiet beliefs in writing and reading put him at constant odds with their Mennonite community, as does his unwavering support for Elf in her forbidden love of piano, poetry, and her unconventional personality. This longstanding history of the two sisters, as well as past persecutions in Russia, weaves in throughout the more present narrative where Elf is in a psychiatric hospital instead of preparing for her upcoming concert tour. The story is entirely from Yoli's first person perspective as the unsuccessful sister and Elf is only envisioned through her eyes.  This persepctive makes it that much more shocking for the reader when Elf admits to Yoli that she has spent a lifetime being the responsible one in order to give Yoli the space and freedom to screw-up. And because we see Elf's despair through the lens of Yoli, there seems to be no definable reason for her crippling depression. Yoli doesn't understand quite the ways in which performing both saves and drains Elf, nor the way the pressure to fulfill her familial role overwhelms her. Instead she is left to wonder whether her sister has the right to die if she is seemingly healthy and only suffering mentally. Is this a mental illness deep within her bones that plagues Elf and if so can she be judged sane in her desire to die?

The narration feels akin to but not exactly stream of consciousness and is very much one sided. There is little action involved; the story relies almost entirely on character development to keep the reader turning pages. Elf as a character is sneaky and determined, non-compliant with her doctors' orders, only wanting to be loosed from the hospital in order to accomplish her ultimate goal. Yoli's character is conflicted and at least somewhat sympathetic as she weighs her own needs and wants as versus her sister's. The story is roughly based on Toews' own family situation and there is a poignancy about it and a truthfulness to both the grief of living in fear for a depressed loved one and the scary inability to truly save someone who has no interest in being saved. As a novel centered on suicide and the desire to die, there is a lot of bleakness and depression, of course, but there's also humor strewn throughout the story that leavens the certain despair, sadness, and sorrow at moments when it threatens to overwhelm the reader. The writing is serious, intimate, and meticulously chosen; it's very well-written. The story as a whole though is somewhat ponderous and the pacing is slow and deliberate. As a look at the toll depression takes on not only the sufferer but those who love her, this is masterful but as an engaging story, it just doesn't quite reach the same level.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. Love the cover and the title - may just have to try this one. Hope you have a great week Kristen

  2. I've had this on my shelf for quite a while but haven't felt like reading about suicide just yet. I think the sisters' dynamic could lure me to it eventually. I heard Toews speak about this one at our city's book festival in 2014.


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