7.06.2014

THE SUNDAY REVIEW: ALL MY PUNY SORROWS - MIRIAM TOEWS


Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life.

You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.

But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.

All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.
- Goodreads

 
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For months I saw this book every time I went into the bookstore. I saw it mentioned on various websites and blogs, it popped up in my recommendations on book sites I subscribe to - but I never paid it much attention. Until Karen came along with her magical review powers and made me need to read this book right away. So it was with no small measure of excitement that I tore into (not literally, obviously) and devoured it. Turns out Karen was completely right - I loved it.

Toews wrote this book in part to deal with the death of her own sister, who committed suicide shortly before she began working on it. Every sentence drips with an authenticity you just cannot create out of nothing. You can feel Toews' own grief echoing through every word. (Perhaps not surprising for an author whose advice to writers was, "Leave your blood on every page. Every page!") She captures perfectly both the pain of impending loss and the conflict of figuring out what to do for someone you cannot help by keeping alive. Even the absurdity such a situation creates. The need to laugh even (and sometimes especially) when you're mired in the thick of it.

She also captures that surviving spirit that many losses, many impossible situations, give to a person. Yoli's family has been torn apart by grief, by death and by the irrationality of depression. It is a disease that makes no sense. There is no material cause and effect. There is no reason for the need to end one's life. There is just.... pain. Unending, unstoppable, unbearable pain.

I think that's what I respected most in this book. That it shows the true nature of the disease of depression - that it is not a logical reaction to situations encountered in life. People suffering from it (and I do mean suffering) didn't have a bad day at work. They didn't lose someone they care about or get fired. They didn't go through something traumatic like a mugging or witnessing a shooting. I mean, they might have, but none of these things caused their depression. It's a disease, and it can afflict the blessed as easily as the cursed.

For those who have no concept of this, it seems selfish, like something we should be able to "fix" by pointing out all the good things in life. But at the end of the day, it's a disease and it doesn't care how much money its victim has in the bank, how many family members they have or how greatly talented they are. It just doesn't matter.

This is what is most terrifying about it. That it can strike anyone, anytime, and that it makes absolutely no sense - therefore there is no easy solution.

Yoli's story involved intimately facing this reality, and trying to accept that for her sister, dying wasn't a tragedy. It wasn't a scary or negative thing - it was a humane end to her suffering. This is such a strange concept for most of us that we can't wrap our minds around it - the idea that for a perfectly healthy body, the mind may be too damaged to save. But this unthinkable reality was the centre of this book.

It's not a light read, obviously. But nor is it as heavy as you may expect. There are moments of levity interwoven with intense anguish and nostalgic meanderings. Toews balances out the elements of the story in such a way that the reader is allowed relief and respite from the darkness, and she does so with such delicacy that by the end of the book I felt more peaceful than I did heartbroken. This is no small feat, and my respect for her talent as a writer is immense. I have yet to read any of her other work, so I don't know if this is a constant or if her subject matter simply brought out her best. But either way, this is a powerful, provocative read.

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Book Title: All My Puny Sorrows
Author: Miriam Toews
Series: No
Edition: Hardback
Published By: Knopf Canada
Released: April 15, 2014
Genre: Fiction, Drama
Pages: 336
Date Read: May 10-19, 2014
Rating: 9/10

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