Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.
Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.
Because I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.
That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.
When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.
I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.
She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.
A worthy goal for us all.
4 thoughts on “Further reflections on the void left by suicide: deeper appreciation for Miriam Toews”
Thanks for this post. I have to admit that I struggled reading this book. I so much wanted to like it and I had heard such good things about it, but for some reason I had difficulty engaging with it. But it’s good to hear that this reader event helped you to put the book into some kind of context, to understand the book better and the author’s aims better.
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Having heard Miriam read, I think she is one of those authors that is almost better appreciated as an audio book. She said there is one but its not her reading. But the self deprecating humour and sadness ring through in a good reading.
I am so glad you posted about Miriam Toews as I had not heard of her before. I just finished reading Swing Low. I found it incredibly moving in so many ways. My father was an undiagnosed/untreated sufferer of bi-polarism and though he didn’t have any of the nicer attributes of her father (his outward behavior was only of anger and verbal abuse) – it did help me to understand him more and also myself…
I haven’t read Swing Low yet but I am looking forward to it. Her recent novel All My Puny Sorrows is inspired by her sister”s suicide about 10 years after her father. It takes a fictional approach with humour and sadness. I did not find it as effective for dealing with the subject but I respect the effort and the pain underlying.
Miriam is one of Canada’s best known novelists who draws heavily on her Mennonite background.