All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews is a heart-breakingly personal stories of two sisters caught in an impossible struggle: as the narrator puts it, “[s]he wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Elfrieda von Riesen (Elf) is a world-renowned concert pianist, attractive and with a loving partner. She also wants to die. Yolandi (Yoli) is her younger sister, writer of pulp fiction, and partnerless mother to two; she has but one crucial quality her older sister doesn’t, the Darwinian survival instinct. Opening after Elf’s latest suicide attempt, in which she has drunk a bottle of bleach and slashed open her wrists, the story examines what it means for a family, and more particularly a sibling, to live with a loved one whose heart is not just set on oblivion, but whose spirit is already there. Yoli’s narrative traces the sisters’ early life in Canada, raised by Mennonite parents, through the suicide of their father, and into their chaotic adult lives – All My Puny Sorrows is more than a story of suffering and grief, but of life in all its messy shades.

If the subject matter sounds heavy, it is made all the more weighty by the knowledge that Toews was able to draw strongly on her own experiences for the book: her father committed suicide by kneeling before a train in 1998 – an experience that Toews wrote about in Swing Low: A Life – and, ten years later, her sister repeated the act. But Toews writes with humour and clarity, and elevates the novel above the base sadness of its theme. Like Toews, the von Riesens grow up in a stifling Mennonite village – a familiar autobiographical theme of Toews’s writing. In such an oppressive atmosphere, Elf’s wild spirit is constantly clipped by the conservative, patriarchal society she finds herself growing up in. Even her piano playing is seen as an improper pastime and, for Elf, becomes an act of rebellion. It is hardly surprising then, to find that she turns this talent into a career – the ultimate act of rebellion, escape gleaned through her individuality – but equally that she spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her body through starvation, pills, and violence.

After the constricting atmosphere of her small town Mennonite upbringing, come the demands of her fans, and the dehumanising psychiatric profession, which sets up new protocols and demands that Elf must adhere to if she is to receive their compassion and care. As Elf lies helpless – voiceless, her throat scarred so badly from the bleach she has swallowed that she cannot speak – doctors quibble over how she communicates with them, and nurses expend more energy trying to enforce arbitrary rules than they do trying to find compassion and healing for their patient. It is a pretty damning picture of indifference from those that, often, stand between some of the sickest in society and death.

Toews’s prose is littered with tight sentences – overwhelming emotions kept, for the most part, in check – which express powerful, thought provoking ideas in simple forms. Much of the prose is laced with a gallows humour too and while the weight of the situation is often thrown off by the characters in throwaway comments, the overall pathos never gives way to optimism; at best, it can be said All My Puny Sorrows is a book about survival, and the pain and promise that brings. The quietness of Toews’s writing, the non-dramatic style of death and dying, is very well done, and far closer to life than any melodramatic depiction of mental illness that glamorises suicide and pain.

In large sections, the dialogue is not punctuated, the story a free flow of experience through Yoli’s eyes. As a narrator, Yoli is so focused on her personal faults, that it is very easy for the reader to miss all of her strengths; to spend your life pulled across the country, or even the world, flying to the bedside of a loved one after their latest attempt to leave you permanently is no small act. To do so without bitterness, while your own life and those of your children are disrupted, and with generous love is something quite special – a quiet form of heroism that many locked into similar situations will empathise with.

For the most part, All My Puny Sorrows exists without a plot and in a particular snatch of time for the von Riesens; it’s an examination of the end of a life, and in that sense the only real movement in the plot is the inevitable rolling towards the final conclusion. As death lurks about her sister, waiting its call to arms, life for Yoli can be quite repetitive – constant drives to and from the hospital to visit Elf hardly constitute high-octane adventure – and inevitably this affects the reader a little, the monotony of caring for and about someone who is on the brink infecting the prose, as it should, and causing the plot, which is slim anyway, to falter at various stages.

Authors are, unsurprisingly, prone to dropping in characters who quote poets, and possess all the qualities a lit-chic bohemian should. At times this wears a little thin, and here Elf’s character could have stood a little more development and a little less intellectual peacocking (and why, as a pianist, so much emphasis on poets and books – again, a slightly too familiar penchant of the literary author?). This does allow, however, for some good stuff on the inability of art to save a life, even if it manages to ornament it and sustain it in the short term; art is, against the harsh reality of the world, a palliative that holds in it everything that is life. From the title – a reference to a Coleridge poem that laments the loss of a sister – onwards, literature is heavily interwoven with the story, William Wordsworth to A. A. Milne, Italo Calvino to Raymond Chandler – and this is an unashamedly literary work. At times the references feel a little forced, but at others they work well to express the culture in which Elf and Yoli have immersed themselves; their escape from the reality of small-town Canada.

With all the literary allusions and focus on life through Yoli’s eyes, the connection that Toews builds between Elf and the reader is only just strong enough to make the story take; although all is seen through Yoli’s eyes, the reader still needs to feel that connection that tethers Yoli to Elf, and the reader to the story. Toews pulls this off, but only just.

All My Puny Sorrows is a delicate and sensitive novel on death and living; a personal, human story laced with bittersweet humour and moments of poignancy. It’s a knowing, engaged book that faces the decision to opt out of life that many people take, with an unflinching but never flabbily emotive style. More than this, it is a novel about sisterhood – a unique relationship – and everything that entails; the love, the fighting and competitiveness, and ultimately the conspiratorial notion that only siblings can conjure of themselves against their parents, against the world. To lose your only sister is to be a solo-conspirator; a place of irreparable loneliness. It’s a truth that both Yoli and Toews share.

This is a painful but still enjoyable read, which is quite an achievement - it's hardly surpising that it's doing well at the awards this year. It does falter occassionally, but that is more than forgivable.

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