A book as full of tragedy as this one should not be so uplifting. I’m really not clear on how Toews did it. She weaves this story around two sisters; Elfrieda and Yolandi. Yolandi accompanies us through Elfreida’s multiple hospitalizations for suicide attempts as the Von Riesen clan rallies around her. While Elf clashes with the nurses, Yolandi fills us in on the family history. The Von Riesens grew up in a Mennonite colony and Elf especially fought against the restrictions and close-mindedness. We also learn Elf is not the first in the family to attempt suicide, despite what seems like a jackpot adulthood. Toews treats both sisters with kindness and respect even though they are on opposite sides of an emotionally fraught issue. Euthanasia. Elfreida is determined to end her life. Yolandi is determined to save her. Their relationship is the eye of a hurricane and we are reading to find whether it will make landfall or dissipate over the sea.
Even though this book is the literary equivalent of a category 1 hurricane, it’s still a wonderful read. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t reading an autobiography. Yolandi felt like she was Miriam Toews. As if she was recounting Toews’ own childhood, failed marriages, and personal griefs. That’s definitely a possible explanation for how Toews managed to create something so real that isn’t technically true. It took me a couple of pages to get used to her writing style – at first I thought it was going to drive me crazy – but by the third chapter I had acclimatized to it. Her sentence structure reminded me a lot of Gabriel García Márquez, the same sort of almost-run-ons-but-not-quite that populated One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fewer metaphors, though. There’s a wonderful segment on pages 45-46 about how whether or not something is “working well” is relative; depending on your current life challenges circumstances that are typically disastrous or ludicrous may barely merit attention. When you have family unwillingly clinging to life, showering without a curtain can easily get bumped from the “disaster” category into the “functional work around” category. (Of course, it can easily go the other way too. The most minor set back or inconvenience can get abruptly upgraded to epic level catastrophes. I’d rather have the former than the latter, but sometimes you don’t get to make that choice.) All My Puny Sorrows also has poems recited by several characters, strange dreams, and poignant letters. There is so much love and tenderness in spite of all the sadness that against all odds, I felt better after reading this book. Few are the books about suicide that I can say such a thing about.