All My Puny Sorrows, 2014, 321 pages
Now we come to one of my faves! All My Puny Sorrows “recounts the tumultuous relationship of the Von Reisen sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi, the only children of an intellectual, free-spirited family from a conservative Mennonite community. Yolandi, the novel’s narrator, has always lived in her sister’s shadow: whereas Elfrieda is a gifted, beautiful, happily married, and much celebrated concert pianist, she is something of a failure, with a floundering writing career and teenage children from separate fathers. Yet it is Elfrieda who suffers from acute depression and a desire to die, much like her father before her, who killed himself by stepping in front of a train”
Toews based the premise of the story on her own experience with her sister (this is a fictional version but she also wrote a memoir about her father’s suicide Swing Low).
Róisín: I think it’s fair to say this is one of my clear favourites on the list. I read it a whle ago so I probably won’t be as articulate about it as you Katy. I love and am also heartbroken by complex sister stories so this one was aimed right at my ol’ heart. I love the way Toews describes her character’s sex life, her relationship with her own daughter, and her family history. I also find it so important how she portrays unhappy, uncomfortable adult lives that still have loving and sometimes joyful relationships.
I think there’s a difference between tragedy and what I often describe as “Misery Porn” (call me if you have three hours to hear me talk about A Little Life). In AMPS, Toews manages to balance tragedy with bright spots and some darkly funny bits that cut through her family’s experience with depression in a way that feels true to life.
Kathleen: I had never read Miriam Toews before, and I am hooked. I never really “get” sister stories, as I don’t have one, but reading this I was like OHHHH, this is what people talk about. AMPS is sad and witty, and full of interesting characters. I loved that the family was Mennonite, even though it wasn’t a big deal in the novel – just a story about some regular adults, living a regular adult life, who happened to grow up in a modern Mennonite community. This is the first book since Bear where I have really felt a deep connection to the main character – I think her entire personality resonated with me. She struggles with making big decisions, and is constantly worried about being a garbage human. She also carries a manuscript for a novel she’s writing in a plastic bag, and refuses to let anyone look at it. I think Yoli is all of us.
As for the way Toews deals with depression in the novel – I really love that she never felt the need to define a reason why Elfrieda was suicidal. Too many authors try to explain away a character’s depression, but mental health issues can never be neatly explained and properly labelled. I didn’t know until reading later that Toews own father and sister had committed suicide.
Róisín: The most quoted line from this book is “We were enemies who loved each other.” which HI DESTROY MY HEART FOREVER OKAY. (take note Elsa and Anna)
VERDICT: Should it be on the 30 before 30?
Kathleen: This book is perfect.
NEXT WEEK’S BOOK: Obasan by Joy Kogawa