All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews
$29.95 Knopf Canada
This is a story of a family in crisis. It’s a sad story, but a tale told with such humour and pathos that it becomes a crazy roller-coaster ride, with almost everyone holding on for dear life.
The narrator is Yolandi, youngest daughter of Jake and Lottie Von Riesen. Yolandi also nicknamed “Swivelhead” by Elfrieda, her elder sister, because of her tendency to watch everything that is happening, and missing nothing.
The family are old country Mennonites, raised with so many rules that the joy is sucked out of life.
Swing Low: a Life, by Miriam Toews, is the story of the suicide of her father. This book, though written as fiction, adds to that story in many ways.
Elfrieda (Elf) grows up to be a world-renowned pianist, despite the stringent rules against even owning a piano in their Mennonite community.
She is a troubled genius and plays the piano with such emotion that she is exhausted and depressed after her concert tours.
=Her greatest wish is to leave this life, and she bends all her efforts to that end, including asking Yoli to take her to Switzerland and help her die.
Yolandi has lived her life with energy often misdirected; she fights every restriction the church legislates.
After two failed marriages, she has become a writer of rodeo stories for young girls. Now she is working on a “real” novel, the manuscript of which she carries around in a Safeway bag.
She loves her sister and in the fight to keep her sister from suicide, Yolandi takes on the world.
She blames her aggressive style on “Mennonite men in church with tight collars and bulging necks accusing (me) of preposterous acts and damning me to some underground fire. …”
Yolandi’s observations of people are droll and not always kind. She speaks of “the angry woman’s mouth like a pencil with two sharpened ends.” She asks, “Who put the fist in pacifist?”
Lottie, the mother of Yolandi and Elfrieda, is arguably the strongest character in the book.
She never let herself be cowed by the rules of their village, but remained strong and open hearted. She lost her husband and a niece to suicide and is deeply troubled by her daughter’s wish to die, and the treatment or lack of it on the psych ward.
Lottie stays sane with online Scrabble and sudoko.
She immerses herself in political causes in faraway places and drinks lots of red wine.
In her own way, she holds the family together.
The title of this novel comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “I too a sister had, an only sister — she loved me dearly and I doted on her! To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows … O! I have woke at midnight, and have wept, because She was NOT!…”
Miriam Toews lives in Toronto and is the author of A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans and Irma Voth.
Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.