A re-read of this brilliant 2004 book reveals themes that feature prominently in her subsequent books: family relationships, especially between sisters, and the cruelty of religious fundamentalism. Nomi is 16 years old and living a stultifying life in a strict Mennonite community characterized by sin, shame, powerlessness, fear, and punishment by silence (shunning). In short, this is a chilling portrayal of adolescent angst in an extreme context, with some inspired comic interludes – a must-read book.
Another tour-de-fore novel by a wonderful storyteller. A remarkable feature of this book is its literary style which is completely different from Toews’ previous books. This is a story of three generations of women. The principal character is Swiv (age unspecified, as is the origin of her name) who has a pregnant and unstable mother and an eccentric grandmother. The wisdom of the grandmother, namely that you must fight to survive, drives the story. The place is Toronto with an extraordinary and hilarious road trip to Fresno for Swiv and Elvira, her grandmother. This is epic storytelling about unusual family relationships – highly recommended.
A fictionalized account of a true story, that women in a strict Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly sexually assaulted while drugged, by men in their own community. The women are having introspective existential conversations: to stay (and fight) or leave? They also discuss moral issues of faith and forgiveness. The only periodic male point-of-view is the transcriptionist who is translating their conversations into English and who occasionally offers comment. The context is a conservative patriarchal society where women have no rights. They want safety for their children, the ability to practise their faith and to think for themselves. Powerful writing.
This is a book about suicide and so it is hard to be perfectly objective but – this is her best book since A Complicated Kindness. Some back story: Toews wrote Swing Low, a non-fiction account of the suicidal death of her father. In AMPS (words taken from a Coleridge poem), the story is fiction but heavily influenced by the suicidal death of Toews’ sister in 2010.
Now for the comments: this is a heart-breaking story, that captures perfectly the inherent conflict between two sisters who love each other, but conflict because one wants to die and the other who wants her sister to live. The inevitability of the progression to the suicide is frightening, despite great efforts by many individuals in addition to the sisters. And finally, the picture of the psych staff is unflattering: indifference and ineffectiveness. Save up your energy for this but it is brilliant writing.