All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, Knopf Canada
Reading the description of the small Manitoba town in the opening pages of All My Puny Sorrows, the reader might assume –with either elation or disappointment – that it is A Complicated Kindness redux. Reading the description of the main character’s family, she may wonder if it isn’t a fictional version of Toews’ brilliant autobiographical account of her father’s depression, Swing Low: A Life.
And it’s true that Toews has gone back to the rich source material of her own life. But led by her trademark combination of smooth prose and quirky wit, the reader will soon understand – definitely with elation – that Toews has created a whole new book, an ambitious and beautifully crafted masterpiece of compassion, storytelling, and love.
In less skilled hands, All My Puny Sorrows (or AMPS, as Elf abbreviates her motto) would have been a disaster. It does, after all, wrestle with mental illness and suicide. But Toews is deft, and although at times it is also very sad, AMPS is highly enjoyable.
Yolandi – Mennonite, soon-to-be divorced single mom, struggling writer, sometime lover of Finbar and Radek – tells the whole story in the first person. It is about her, but the engine of the plot is her sister Elfrieda, and Toews perfectly balances the reader’s engagement with both characters. She maintains a pitch-perfect tone, portraying Yoli (and Elf and their charming mother and aunt) as funny, thoughtful, sparky and slightly wild women of intelligence, searching for (and finding) ways to live with the ongoing pain of deep grief.
For all Yoli’s specificity she is an everywoman character, and if her traumas accumulate in a particularly intense way, her daily struggle to face them and make a life in spite of them feels comfortably familiar. There is plenty of dysfunction in this story, but no one is mean (except maybe the Mennonite elders who provide rigid and doctrinaire foils for our free-spirited women); and no one is to blame for the depression that stalks this family.
On the contrary, as Yoli struggles with her sister Elf’s suffering and repeated attempts to kill herself while juggling financial and creative stresses, impending divorce, a slightly wild teenage daughter (no surprise), possible floods and automotive breakdown, she and her family wield as their primary weapons love and humour.
Even when Yoli finally begins to express her rage at the pain Elf is inflicting on her family, love and humour are still in the mix. She acts out by sleeping around – but only with nice guys. She drinks too much, but quietly, with her delightfully insubordinate old friend Julie. She sneaks into the hospital late at night and lies to the nurses, but only so she can snuggle with her sister.
Among its many strengths, AMPS is full of loving portraits of the sister bond and of mother-daughter relationships, of loving marriages enduring through very tough times, of sustaining friendships. It is an homage to the importance of art (“everyone has that sadness in them,” Yoli tells her mother, “…and the writing helps to organize it, so no big deal”), to some of the best values of human society, and to the courage it takes to love through suffering.
“My mother was often asked to write eulogies because she had a breezy style that was playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating,” Yoli says. That describes AMPS perfectly.
Elise Moser’s YA novel Lily and Taylor was published by Groundwood Books. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of Quebec Writing Competition-winning stories Salut King Kong: New English Stories from Quebec, from Véhicule Press. She is a board member of PEN Canada.
Photo by N. Renaud