[NOTE: I joined NetGalley.com in 2018, in an attempt to read a few books that had yet to be published. The exchange is leaving a review, which I did, through my former blog Local-Satori.com. When I decided to shutter the blog, I moved my book interests to Instagram - where you can now find my books/am reading accounts @essayemreads]
Miriam Toews, Women Talking
Published: April 2, 2019
No way around it, this book is a hell of a thing.
Toews' fictionalized account is based on real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in the ultra-conservative Bolivian Manitoba Mennonite Colony in Canada. In the real-life version, over 130 women and young girls were repeatedly anesthetized --with a sedative spray typically used on animals-- assaulted, raped and, in some cases, impregnated, by men in the community.
This book is, in Toews' words, "an imagined response" to a similar situation - wherein in the women of the fictional Molostchna community meet and discuss their options after the men are arrested.
It's a stark scene. A small group of eight women, meeting in a barn. They're dressed as one might expect, in clothes of a time past. They sit on buckets or bales, their children crawl around in the hay, some vomit into buckets dealing with the ill-effects of unwanted pregnancy. Mostly, they're anxious, angry and conflicted. They recognize immediately how they are less in the community as women - they can't read or write, they don't own anything, they don't know geography or how to read a map, they don't know what lies beyond their community.
Toews, on behalf of the women, asks valid questions. Questions that no doubt passed through the minds of the real-life women. Should they stay and fight? What would that look like if the very men who've assaulted them are still calling all the shots? Do they leave? Where would they go? How would they eat? How many of their children could they take? What would their husbands do? And, the most pointed option, stay and do nothing.
The book is narrated by August Epp, a young man and teacher who grew up in the community, was exiled with his family, and then later, was able to return in this somewhat shameful capacity. He is the only male ally represented and is brought in to take the minutes, occasionally provide clarification and (whether asked for or not) give the women as much support as they welcome. It's also an opportunity for August to get closer to his objet petit a - Ona, an unmarried, middle-aged woman, who was impregnated during the attacks. It's through August's eyes we see the deep hurt, frustration and betrayal making its way through each woman. When discussing their faith, and whether they'd be adhering or blaspheming by whatever their decision, August thinks this is “the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.”
While these are certainly serious times in the community, it's not all darkness. Though the women are from the same community and generally abide by the same strict rules of faith, they find power within each other due their terrible circumstances. Moments of lightness happen within the more challenging moments - one mother's tip on how to guide a cherry stone out of a child's nose by sucking it out, and the occasional back and forth between women who have long been of different minds, now united in their desire to put an end to their silent victimhood.
By narrative structure alone, this book will not be for everyone. It's written mostly as a conversation - so those expecting long paragraphs of minute description will find it lacking. Those who stick around with a slightly different way of doing things, will find the story for what it is, a deeply moving, sympathetic view on the aftermath of tragedy and the power in coming together.