Despite its raw and painful concerns—suicide, loss, grief—Miriam Toews’ sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, brings to mind the irreverent and ebullient opening words of Joan Foster in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle: “I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror….”
The parallel is fleeting. While the perfectly-aimed sarcasm of Atwood’s protagonist elicits upbeat and hearty laughter, the cutting observations of Toews’ narrator, Yolandi Von Riesen, register as gallows humor and whistling in a graveyard. Yoli’s sharp asides are always accompanied by deep unease. Dissolution and encroaching death lurk just beneath—or within—her every smart-ass remark.
Fitful and seething, the novel dwells on what Toews describes— in the memoir Swing Low (2000), an account of her father—as “dragging some of the awful details to the light of day.” Melvin Toews suffered from depression (a “clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair,” his youngest daughter writes) for decades and ended his life after retirement from a robust teaching career in a Canadian prairie town. A similar affliction resulted in the suicide of Toews’ sister Marj a dozen years later. In Puny Sorrows, Yoli’s father’s suicide is an unhealed past trauma; her sister’s pending one is painful, an open wound.
A harried and self-deprecating women facing her elder sister’s insistent yearnings for suicide even as the memory of their father’s suicide hasn’t yet subsided, Yoli experiences a kind of grief that does not have the reassuring neatness of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages. Toews depicts it as all-consuming, deeply messy, and wildly erratic, a chaotic emotional state.
At once nostalgic and clear-eyed, the novel’s summery and consummate opening chapter describes the Von Reisen family circa 1979. Yoli and her confident, self-possessed older sister Elfrieda are adolescent, and the family of four gets by as near-pariahs within a small Manitoban Mennonite community whose dour, holier-than-thou elders actively discourage citizens like the Von Reisens from expressing individuality. Under the care of their parents, though, the girls go camping, freely express unorthodox opinions (such as women’s rights), and savor rather than repress joyfulness. Even with the community’s restrictions and a bloody, violent Russian familial heritage, the Von Reisens convey a surface happiness.
At midpoint the chapter’s hue darkens: “Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stitches holding her forehead together…. I asked her how she got the cut and she told me she fell in the washroom. Who knows if it’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her package of pills—the ones given to her by nurses—she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie.”
Divorced, unfocussed, and barely scraping by in Toronto as a single parent and author of children’s books, aspiring novelist Yoli is visiting her sister, a world-renowned concert pianist, in a Winnipeg hospital ward. Not for the first time, Elf has tried—and failed—to end her life.
As the voice of the novel, Yoli is captivating. Between tearful, low-volume hospital conversations with her sister—who’s focused on getting better, Elf says without much conviction—Yoli makes calls and texts to far-flung family; she drops by nurses’ stations, paces, conjures anxious visions at home, reminisces in her car. Urgent and panicked, she talks with her visiting mother and aunt (whose brief stay in Winnipeg is disrupted by her own misfortune); she’s argumentative, flailing, desperate. As her sister’s confident, she’s forced to weigh—and weigh again—Elf’s request to arrange a trip for two to Switzerland, which is home to legal assisted suicide. When Elf is released, only to be found at home later in physical agony, having consumed a caustic household cleanser, Yoli is forced to answer uncomfortable, pressing questions about the ethics of suicide and an individual’s right to end life on their own terms.
After a terrible finality, four chapters chart Life After Elf, with Yoli’s mother moving into her daughter’s filthy new house in Toronto. “She’s a short, fat seventy-six-year-old Mennonite prairie woman who has lived most of her life in one of the country’s most conservative small towns, who has been tossed repeatedly through life’s wringer, and who has rather suddenly moved to the trendy heart of the nation’s largest city to begin, as they say, a new chapter in her life.” Anchored to time, of course, their lives must continue.
Though Toews depicts both Yoli and Elf as burdened and damaged by past events, and conscious of the chasm left by their absent loved ones, she also gestures at their striving for happiness and whatever pleasures life offers them. Realistic and deeply sad, the ending captures scenes of recovery and endurance with striking fidelity.