Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sister sorrow

Miriam Toews' latest a tender, compassionate balancing act

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Author Miriam Toews.

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Author Miriam Toews. Photo Store

"She wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were enemies who loved each other."

So says Yolandi Von Riesen, protagonist in Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows, of her sister Elfrieda.

From Yoli's statement comes the novel's core question: How hard should one work to keep someone alive who has lost the will to live? It's a question Toews tackles with tough love, tender reflection and genuine compassion throughout the novel.

Born and raised in Steinbach and having spent many years in Winnipeg before moving to Toronto, Toews has won numerous accolades for her seven previous books, including the Governor General's Award for Fiction for 2004's A Complicated Kindness.

Yoli lives in Toronto -- she writes rodeo books for girls, but carries with her (in a plastic grocery bag) a "serious" manuscript with admitted plot problems that she refuses to show anyone. She has two kids from different marriages and, overall, she's miserable about her lot in life. She's a mess.

Elf, her sister, is based in Winnipeg. She's a successful, internationally renowned pianist with a loving partner -- in short, she has every success Yoli could want -- but Elf has fought a long-standing battle with depression and mental illness.

We meet the adult versions of the sisters in Elf's hospital room, after her latest suicide attempt. Yoli has returned to Winnipeg to help their mother and Nic, Elf's partner. She spends much of her time in the Ste. Odile Hospital, occasionally getting lost in parkades and hallways and stairwells on the way to and from her sister's bedside.

Elf and Yoli's mother Lottie is the rock of the family, somehow absorbing most of the novel's emotional hardships with a quiet, steadfast persistence. When Elf and Yoli are kids, their quiet, troubled father Jakob takes his own life, hardening their mother's spirit for the sorrows to come.

The sisters grow up in East Village, a name familiar to readers of A Complicated Kindness. In this repressive Mennonite town, Elf's childhood musical prowess is nurtured behind closed doors for fear of judgment and repercussion from the community.

She takes to painting "AMPS," short for "All my puny sorrows" (a line from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem), around town.

Yoli's struggle through the novel is to convince Elf she needs to live -- for her, for their mother, for her partner. Elf is headstrong and determined to die, and for much of the novel the two are deadlocked.

Adding to the tension between the sisters, Elf eventually asks Yoli to take her to Switzerland, where she can die of her own accord.

From this point forward, Yoli must grapple with whether to help her sister die or keep fighting for her to live.

It's often tempting to conflate Toews' life with her fiction; like Yoli, members of Toews' family have a history of struggling with mental illness and suicide.

Like Carol Shields' The Republic of Love and Margaret Laurence's Manawaka books, place is so important in All My Puny Sorrows, and a genuine love of Winnipeg runs throughout the novel.

When not at her sister's bedside, Yoli is busted for texting and driving on Sherbrook Street, travels Ellice and Warsaw avenues, visits a beer vendor, Kristina's restaurant, Garbage Hill and more. She sits on her friend's porch in Wolseley, drinking wine and listening to the ice break up on the river.

Ever a Manitoban, Yoli complains about the potholes: "Does anybody ever fix this city?"

Throughout the novel Toews convincingly distinguishes characters through their unique voices -- certainly one of her many writerly strengths.

At the heart of All My Puny Sorrows is Yoli's deep, heartfelt nostalgia: for Winnipeg, for her sister, for childhood. Toews' touching depiction of Elf and Yoli as teenagers sets the stage for their later, conflicted relationship.

Even though the East Village community branded Elf and Yoli's childhood psyche with old-order guilt and shame -- much in the same way Elf brands the town with her "AMPS" grafitti -- it's still a time and place where Yoli's family exists intact, where mental illness and death don't live so loud.

While death weighs heavy throughout All My Puny Sorrows, Toews effortlessly diffuses its gravity with humour as she sees fit, elsewhere forcing her characters to deal with grief, loss and depression head-on. Fans of 2000's Swing Low: A Life and/or A Complicated Kindness will love All My Puny Sorrows

Throughout the novel runs a struggle with (and criticism of) the medical system, especially as it pertains to mental illness.

The book's title encapsulates both the diminutive, self-deprecating nature of growing up in a somewhat stifling Mennonite town as well as the genuine, solitary internal anguish of mental illness -- the pain may appear small, but can grow into something that Yoli's sister and father find overwhelming.

Given the dialogue recently incited by Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher and many others regarding assisted suicide, All My Puny Sorrows is timely.

Regardless of where people stand on right-to-die issues, this novel tenderly grapples with decisions of the head and the heart with a deft hand.

All My Puny Sorrows is a novel that balances humour and darkness, and it will stay with readers for a long time.


Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the Winnipeg Free Press books editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G5

History

Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:00 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adjusts formatting.

10:29 AM: Adds video.

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