I don’t know why Miriam Toews isn’t more famous in the UK. She has been consistently brilliant for the best part of two decades, she has a house full of awards, she is published by Faber… so why has nobody heard of her? It isn’t as if there are hoards of writers who can do what she does. How many novelists can you name who could write an autobiographical novel about suicide that is warm and non-judgemental and brilliantly readable and, frequently, hilarious?
Elf and Yoli are sisters. Elf wants to die and her compulsion to do so is what drives the plot of the novel. Yoli, the novel’s narrator, is the passenger and spectator, chronicler, of her sister’s need for death and how it has affected their family. And in Yoli, Miriam Toews has created a near perfect narrator for this story. There is a wonderful attention to detail and to seeing the comic potential of detail. For example, when Yoli’s mother holds her and tells her that everything is going to be all right, her thoughts drift to noticing that,
“Bob Marley says it too but he says every little thing gonna be all right and that strikes me as an appropriate qualifier even if all he was doing was getting enough syllables to match the music.”
And interestingly it is Yoli, not Elf, whose life is, on the surface, in turmoil. Elf is a successful concert pianist in a happy marriage. Yoli is in romantic freefall and carrying a novel in a carrier bag that may or may not be her esacape from making a living from writing rodeo books for teenagers. There is comedy here too.
“I googled: can writing a novel kill you? And found nothing useful.”
But while All My Puny Sorrows is funny it is not a comedy, or at least not just a comedy. A useful marker would be the short fiction of Lorrie Moore (but as she too is criminally neglected perhaps not useful to everyone). Both writers manage to use humour to expand character and to realistically reflect reality, which is full of humour, even in the darkest situations.
Through flashback we are given the full span of the sisters’ relationship, from their Mennonite upbringing via the suicide of their father to Elf’s hospital bed. There is so much in this novel I would like to talk about but so little I am prepared to risk spoiling for you. Read it and you will see why.
Any Cop?: Yes. A masterpiece. Genuinely. Read it.