Miriam Toews’ writing is as even and smooth as a field of prairie wheat on a windless summer day. Using the first person and opting for simplicity of language and an often self-deprecating tone, she successfully draws the reader along through what is otherwise rough and rocky terrain. It is a writing style that has allowed her to delve deep into subjects and story lines that might otherwise discourage or disincline the average reader.
Swing Low: A Life was Toews’ memoir of her father’s lifelong depression. In her Governor General Award-winning A Complicated Kindness, she explored abandonment, excommunication and oppression. The Flying Troutmans, winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2008, took the reader on a journey whose thematic road markers were love, dependence and mental illness.
In Irma Voth, Toews’ newest novel, familiar storylines of rebellion, guilt, filial love and forgiveness weave their way through the narrative. As in A Complicated Kindness, the narrator and protagonist in Irma Voth is a teenaged girl with attitude, struggling to survive within the confines of an oppressive Mennonite community. But unlike her earlier novel, Toews’ relocates her feisty female firebrand into northern Mexico, specifically the state of Chihuahua close to the city of Cuauhtémoc.
It might seem like a long way from Steinbach, Manitoba to Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, but there is actually a Mennonite settlement in Chihuahua. Toews had the opportunity to explore the community while she was working as an actress in the 2007 film Luz Silenciosa (Silent Light), directed by the respected Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas.
Irma Voth is nineteen and married to a Mexican named Jorge, who she met at a rodeo in Rubio. Jorge is a bad boy and is constantly disappearing to participate in illegal activities, and then reappearing for just long enough to make Irma feel bad. While obviously at odds with her Mennonite upbringing, Irma remains in the family compound, living down the road from her nasty father, her kind but defeated and pregnant mother, her rambunctious little brothers, and her smartass younger sister Aggie.
When a film crew arrives and rents one of the houses nearby. Irma is drawn into the film shoot, acting as an interpreter and intermediary between the local Mennonites who are hired as actors and the crew of bohemian film makers, led by the unpredictable and irresistible Diego.
But when young Aggie disobeys her father and is punished for joining Irma on location one night, Irma realizes that the only hope for survival for herself, for Aggie, and for her newborn sister is escape.
The last section of the novel takes place in Mexico City where Irma manages to find work as a maid in a bed and breakfast. Aggie goes to school and the baby, Ximena, is thriving with a rebellious spirit that exerts itself at every opportunity. Before the novel ends, a family secret is revealed, explaining Irma’s sense of responsibility for her sisters’ welfare, her hopelessness, and her guilt for all the things she cannot do.
Toews’ now familiar writing is consistent throughout the novel but in the end the smooth and easy style actually undermines the narrative’s emotional impact. Rather than allowing us to fully experience the implications of the powerful themes she explores, Toews’ voice flows through our minds with little effort at all on our part. Kind of like taking the Transcanada through the prairies on cruise control.
B.A. Markus is a writer, teacher and performer who always takes the Yellowhead Highway when she drives through the prairies because it’s more interesting.