What an amazing writer Miriam Toews is. I read A Complicated Kindness over a decade ago on the recommendation of another writer on an Arvon course, who admired the voice of the narrator. I was fascinated by the Mennonite community and the narrator’s childhood. And then there was All My Puny Sorrows. This is how I introduced that book on an earlier post.
This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her? How do you help?
I reread it earlier this year for my reading group. It had the same effect on me all over again, as if I held my breath from start to finish.
Women Talking takes the Mennonite community and extraordinarily difficult circumstances for its starting point. The women of the Molotshna community gather in secret to decide whether to leave or stay. Even this small act of meeting without permission is transgressive. It has not been sanctioned by the menfolk.
The events that have led to this meeting are drawn from real life and they are shocking. In 2005-9 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia it was found that many of the women and girls had been repeatedly raped at night by men within their community. The women and girls were drugged with animal anaesthetic and when they woke, sore, bloodied, bruised and confused their injuries were put down to visits from ghosts, demons, or as divine punishment for their sins. But one day a young man was caught. He confessed and implicated others. Because of the seriousness and extent of the crimes the community elders decided to hand over the matter to the police, despite usually handling matters of law and order themselves.
Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination .[From A Note on the Novel by the author]
In Women Talking the women are facing the return on bail of the men, needed for the farm work on which the community depends. All the able men of Molotshna have gone to the nearby town to provide the bail money. In their absence the women meet to discuss two options, having rejected the choice of doing nothing. They can stay or they can leave.
The novel is presented as the notes of a sympathetic man, who had been invited by the women to record what they say. The women have not been allowed to learn to read or write. August Epp is something of an outsider in the community, having lived outside it.
Eight women meet in secret in a hayloft to arrive at their decision before the men return. They have suffered from the nighttime attacks and some of them are pregnant. Together they consider their options and the implications of anything they do. The reader has some sense of the limitations placed on the lives of the women up to this point, how the community and their men determine what they can do. Now for the first time they must make decisions.
Most of the book is Epp’s report of their conversations. Miriam Toews has said that she found it hard to write, keeping track of the women and making it digestible to the reader. The two youngest girls are teenagers, and often up to mischief together
Autje and Neitje, I notice, have removed their kerchiefs and braided their long hair together, into one braid, so they are conjoined. (59).
Ona is favoured by Epp, and is playful and determined in equal measure.
[Greta] asks: What will happen if the men refuse to meet our demands?
Ona responds: We will kill them.
Autje and Neitje gasp, then smile tentatively. (58)
As the discussion goes on, exploring every possibility, the women pose themselves a question: is leaving their husbands to save their children an act of disobedience, and if so according to what authority? They come to see that, because they cannot read, they have relied upon the men to tell them what is in the Bible. It is the central point of their discussion. They discuss disobedience.
It’s a word that the men of Molotshna would use, not God.
That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving. […]
(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotshna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.) (159)
The manner of this discussion is striking. As they explore the possibilities, they reason and support each other. They do not try to score points, nor come to the discussion with their mind made up. This is a dialogue, their attempt to arrive together at a decision they could not reach on their own through their shared explorations. This is women talking.
Another aspect of their discussion is how philosophical it is. The women are in new territory, so it is not surprising that they arrive at a point of questioning the authority of the men.
I won’t reveal what the women decide to do. The future of all members of the community is uncertain. As it always is for everybody.
Talking about her purpose in writing this book Miriam Toews said
I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]
You won’t be surprised that the book is endorsed on the cover by Margaret Atwood.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) Faber and Faber. 216pp