Book Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
By Austine Model
People suggest books to me all the time. The moment I mention I write or study literature, the first impulse for many is to recommend a book or an author to me. While I, of course, appreciate this, I have more books on my shelves, and in various boxes strung out across my apartment floor, than I can read in the next decade. However, I recently met someone who gave me a book —her favorite book. We met, more or less, over a shared love for the same author: Joan Didion, so I trusted this recommendation more than most.
The book: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. From the wrong writer, the bleak subject matter of (attempted) suicide and the complex family dynamics before and after would drone on and leave the reader exhausted. Instead, Toews’ main characters, Yoli and Elf, alongside their mother and Elf’s devoted partner, Nic, enthrall the reader as if they are turning the pages for you. The story flickers between the present, just after Elf attempts to kill herself, and Yoli’s memories of their childhood in a small Mennonite town in Canada.
Elf is a world-renowned concert pianist, and Yoli, her younger sister, is a fading commercial YA writer, dealing with two failed marriages and two teenage children. Throughout the book, Toews’ exquisite language deftly traverses the tragedy of depression, the confusion it causes for people in the orbit of someone dealing with severe depression, and the hilarity of everyday life, when everything else – everything that is supposed to matter – goes wrong.
The bond between Yoli and Elf is best summed up early on in the book, as Yoli reflects, “[i]t was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other. We held each other tenderly, awkwardly, because she was in a bed attached to things” (43). The balance between humor and the raw, unflinching moments Toews captures courses through the entire novel. Nearly my entire book is dogeared and underlined with passages I keep returning to for clarity, humor, and/or wisdom. As a bonus, Toews infuses her works with stellar musical references that enhance the reading, if you want a bonus challenge. The music mentioned spans from Rachmaninoff to Kayne West to Woody Gutherie to David Bowie, each allusion perfectly eliciting the mood of the characters in the pages.
Miriam Toews is a Canadian writer from Manitoba; she has won several prestigious awards, including: the 2004 Governor General’s Award for her book A Complicated Kindness; McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in 1998 and 2004; the Writers Trust Engel/Findley Award in 2010; and, the 2016 Writers’ Trust of Canada Fellowship. In 2018, her latest book Women Talking was released and shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General’s Award.
Austine Elizabeth Chilton Model is a staff editor at Café MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.