An Honest and Enlightening Look at the Human Condition | Review of “all my puny sorrows” by Miriam Toews (2014) Knopf Canada

sorrowsThe concept of literature to explore the issues around the human condition is an enlightening one. We are surrounded by issues like depression, suicide, dysfunctional families, et cetera, it feels like we are alone in dealing with these problems. But we are not. And when a writer like Miriam Toews writes a book like all my puny sorrows, we are graced with the wisdom that our fights are not in vain.

Page 10

Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stitches holding her forehead together. The stiches are black and stiff and the ends poke out of her head like little antennae. I asked her how she got that cut and she told me that she fell in the washroom. Who knows if that’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her packages of pills – the ones given to her by the nurses – she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie. I told her that I knew she wasn’t interested in taking the pills anyway, unless they were of such a volume that their combined effect would make her heart seize, so why would she need a pair of scissor to open the package? Also, she could use her hands to tear it open. But she won’t risk injuring her hands.

The story deals with two sisters – Yolandi and Elfrieda – as they reach middle age. “Elf” has a wonderful life as a world-renowned pianist. “Yoli” is divorced, broke and desperately trying to find true love. Yet it is Elf who has the strong desire to die and her family is shocked as she tries to kill herself. And it is Yoli that must keep everything together as much as possible.  

Page 74-75

I left the room and wandered around the hallways and nodded at the nurses at the nurses’ station and walked into a linen closet by accident thinking it was a bathroom and out again, knocking over mops and cleaning products and muttering apologies, and back into Elf’s room, fresh smile, tears rubbed away, my face by now a lurid mess of colours and grime, and I’m trying to comfort myself. I’m singing, not really singing, the Boss (because he’s authoritative). “Thunder Road” . . . The anthemic tune that lit a fire in our plain girls hearts back in the eighties – serenading our own reflections with hairbrush microphones or belting it into the wind from the backs of half-ton trucks or the tops of towering hay bales – and that I’m calling on to give me hope once again.

Toews has a frank and simple style here that does more to illuminate societal issues than 100 daytime talk shows and news articles can ever attempt to do. This book is well-crafted and carefully thought out and deserves not be named a “must-read” but also should be nominated for several awards.

Page 212

My mom was sitting outside Elf’s room, on a chair near the nurses’ desk, mustering up her courage to be cheerful, an ambassador of hoe, and catching her breath. I went in and sat down beside Elf on her bed and said hey, I’m here. There was nothing in this room but two single beds, one empty, and two small desks with small chairs. There was a small, high window with a cage on it and Jesus dying on a small cross over the door. Elf was motionless in her bed, also small, silent, her face to the wall. I put my hand on her bony hip like a lover in the night. She murmured hi but didn’t turn to look at me. Is that you, Swivelhead? she said. I told he that Nic had left for Spain that morning although she already knew that, that mom was sitting outside catching her breath, that Aunt Tina’s condition had worsened a bit an now she needed surgery. I asked her how she was feeling. She didn’t answer. I have some fan mail for you, I said. I put the pile of papers on her empty desk. She didn’t answer.

all my puny sorrows by Miriam Toews is a brilliant novel dealing family and social issues we all face. Again it is a “must-read” and deserves high praise.

Link to Random House Canada’s page for all my puny sorrows.




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