All My Puny Sorrows is witty, wise, ironic, unsettling, dark, and original. Sisters Elf and Yoli grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Elf has become a world-renowned concert pianist and Yoli seems like a screw-up but it’s Elf who wants to kill herself and her latest attempt is destroying Yoli. You’ll fall under the spell of Yoli’s journey to love and support her sister while trying to figure out just what that means. That spell is cast more by voice than by plot. Every character in this novel is a unique personality seen through Yoli’s crisp first person narrative. Yoli and Elf’s family members are quirky, real, and achingly funny. Only a writer like Toews could make a novel with a plot centered on suicide so very, very humorous. It’s droll and clever because the sharply drawn characters like Elf and Yoli and their indomitable mother never stop surprising you.
The novel also illuminates the Mennonite community and the elders who challenge this strange family that refuses to stay inside their proscribed box. When Elf was fifteen Mennonite men entered their house having “heard from a local snitch that Elf had ‘expressed an indiscreet longing to leave the community’ and they were apoplectically suspicious of higher learning – especially for girls. Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.
She’ll get ideas, said one of them to my father in our living room, to which he had no response but to nod in agreement and look longingly toward the kitchen where my mother was staked out snapping her dish towel at houseflies and pounding baby veal into schnitzel. I sat silently beside my father on the itchy davenport absorbing their “perfume of contempt” as my mother described it.”
Even when Toews tosses in a character who only appears briefly her writing soars with sharp descriptions like that of the man who “smashed his head on the dash of his car when it hit a cement truck on black ice and now he stands alone outside the 7-Eleven on Corydon asking people really politely for change. He’s still handsome. He seems sort of hollowed out but his eyes are really bright, the whites really white and the blues really blue, like Greek islands. He mumbles words and sometimes it seems like he’s laughing at everything like he’s just been thrown a surprise party.”
My appreciation for this novel was heightened when I learned that Toews’ father committed suicide and her sister, her only sibling, also killed herself five years ago after several attempts. AMPS, as the sisters shorten Coleridge’s poetic reference to All My Puny Sorrows, is rich and true with insights Toews has gained from living through such difficulties. The book is a scorching portrayal of the mental health system because it makes us care about the characters enough to want them to get the attention they need.
Hockey fans probably know how to pronounce Toews name because of Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews. (It’s Tāves .) Perhaps All My Puny Sorrows will make Miriam Toews as well known in the U.S. so no one will wonder how to say her name. Reading Giller Prize finalist and winner of the Writer’s Trust of Canada prize All My Puny Sorrows is the perfect introduction to an author who’s revered in Canada and Britain and who deserves much more attention from U.S. readers.
Summing it Up: This searing, autobiographical novel is more fulfilling than anything that ever came out of The Mennonite Treasury Cookbook. Literary readers looking for a distinctive voice with a plaintive, yet wry, tone will carefully digest this tragicomedy. Thankfully, Toews backlist includes five previous novels and a work of nonfiction to sate the hunger that will surely come after digesting the last page of All My Puny Sorrows.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: November 6, 2014
Read an Excerpt: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/a-mcsweeneys-books-preview-of-miriam-toews-new-novel-all-my-puny-sorrows
Interviews with the Author: http://www.powells.com/blog/interviews/miriam-toews-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/
What Others are Saying:
Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-all-my-puny-sorrows-miriam-toews-20141224-story.html
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/09/all-my-puny-sorrows-miriam-toews-review-darkly-fizzing-tragicomedy
Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-miriam-toews-20141207-story.html
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/all-my-puny-sorrows-by-miriam-toews.html
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781940450278
Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-all-my-puny-sorrows-by-miriam-toews/2014/11/10/7085b100-669d-11e4-836c-83bc4f26eb67_story.html