All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews. Knopf Canada, 321 pp, hardcover
The madcap misadventures of zany family members, that staple device of American sitcoms, are also useful in modern fiction—for example, Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt. But Miriam Toews pursues the idea to entirely new heights in her miraculous sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows. The narrator, Yoli, short for Yolandi, is a recently divorced mother who writes young-adult books about rodeos but aspires to something far more serious. As a child, her sister Elf, for Elfrieda, was a piano prodigy but when the novel opens is giving up her career as an internationally renowned concert artist of the highest rank.
The family, including an earnest loser of a father, an eccentric wildcat of a mother, and a loopy aunt, is from a Mennonite village in Manitoba that “had originated as a godly refuge from the vices of the world”. Being a bit untamed was “the worst thing you could become in a community rigged for compliance”. As the novel unfolds, some of the characters find their way first to Winnipeg, “the coldest city in the world and yet the hottest, the farthest from the sun and yet the brightest”, and ultimately to Toronto. This arc from the rural to the modern to the postmodern has often been depicted as the creation myth of today’s Canada, but it’s difficult to think of anyone other than Toews who has invested the tale with so much pain and dolefulness (to say nothing of the bonus features—verve and humour).
The intellectual Elf, wry, dry, and laconic, has taken a psychological turn for the worse. She cuts her wrists and then drinks bleach, but survives. The sisters’ father and one of their cousins had committed suicide, and now this. Yoli asks herself: “Did Elf have a terminal illness? Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die? Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from innate longing for release and oblivion?”
Yoli must wrestle with the morality, and the legality, of assisting Elf in her wish to disappear from life. She studies up on possible drugs and possible venues. But the end comes another way, while people’s backs are turned. The reader closes this bravura work of fiction thinking that the comedy of life doesn’t always conceal the tragedy or even distract from it but rather, at some level, only complicates it. Many of the settings and circumstances in All My Puny Sorrows have antecedents in earlier Toews novels (and, we’re told by the publishers, in her own life). Authors, of course, commonly write in order to heal themselves. (As Yoli says at one point, “A heart attack comes from the pain of remembering.”) But few other writers self-medicate so beautifully.
Miriam Toews will join fellow author Steven Galloway for a special Vancouver Writers Fest event at the Norman Rothstein Theatre next Thursday (April 24).