Friday, June 12, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Well this book is a real punch in the gut. I think the words used to recommend it to me were "heartbreakingly beautiful" which is definitely an accurate description.

The story follows two sisters, Elf and Yoli, who grew up in a Mennonite community in rural Manitoba. Elf is a piano prodigy, who goes on to become a world-reknown pianist. She has, in her younger sister's eyes, everything - a wonderful career, a happy relationship with a man who loves her, more money than you could shake a stick at. But Elf suffers from crippling depression, a family trait that led her father to take his own life when the girls were young.

At the beginning of the book, Elf has just made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself and is in the hospital in Winnipeg.  Concerned loved ones surround her, including her sister Yoli, who I guess you would call the protagonist although it is Elf's actions that really drive the story. Yoli leaves her home and two teenaged children in Toronto to crash at her mother's house and visit Elf for hours every day. The novel is a mish-mash of Yoli's recollections of their shared childhood, her reflections on her own current messy life, and her attempts to argue Elf out of her depression.

Even though the story is really about these two sisters, the supporting characters are very good and well-drawn; their mother is amazing and hilarious, with her own fierce sister Tina; Elf's partner Nick is relentlessly patient and completely hapless; and Yoli's kids, seen through text messages, are typical teenagers - but the fact that they always ask after Elf is one of the more heart-rending details of the novel.

This is another one of those books that I can never do justice through describing, because the genius of it is in the poetry of the writing, and the heartbreaking accuracy of the themes - of music, sisterhood, sadness and carrying on, life and death and redemption (sticking with my current theory that all stories are about redemption in one way or another).

Toronto plays a very small role in the book - the last few chapters, probably the last quarter of the book, are set in Toronto. I really enjoyed the fact that Yoli seemed to live in my neighbourhood, and a couple of places were name-checked - including an intense argument about suicide at Saving Grace. But if anything this is a love sonnet to Winnipeg (if one can imagine such a thing) - although there isn't much setting outside the hospital walls, the description of the sound of the ice breaking on the river resonates through the story.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. It is also an extremely emotional read. Proceed accordingly.

Five CN Towers out of five.

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