Sis­ter

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

HE wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were en­e­mies who loved each other.” So says Yolandi Von Riesen, pro­tag­o­nist in Miriam Toews’ of her sis­ter El­frieda. From Yoli’s state­ment comes the novel’s core ques­tion: How hard should one work to keep some­one alive who has lost the will to live? It’s a ques­tion Toews tack­les with tough love, ten­der re­flec­tion and gen­uine com­pas­sion through­out the novel. Born and raised in Stein­bach and hav­ing spent many years in Win­nipeg be­fore mov­ing to Toronto, Toews has won nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades for her seven pre­vi­ous books, in­clud­ing the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Award for Fic­tion for 2004’s Yoli lives in Toronto — she writes rodeo books for girls, but car­ries with her (in a plas­tic gro­cery bag) a “se­ri­ous” man­u­script with ad­mit­ted plot prob­lems that she re­fuses to show any­one. She has two kids from dif­fer­ent mar­riages and, over­all, she’s mis­er­able about her lot in life. She’s a mess. Elf, her sis­ter, is based in Win­nipeg. She’s a suc­cess­ful, in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned pi­anist with a lov­ing part­ner — in short, she has ev­ery suc­cess Yoli could want — but Elf has fought a long-stand­ing bat­tle with de­pres­sion and men­tal ill­ness. We meet the adult ver­sions of the sis­ters in Elf’s hospi­tal room, af­ter her lat­est sui­cide at­tempt. Yoli has re­turned to Win­nipeg to help their mother and Nic, Elf’s part­ner. She spends much of her time in the Ste. Odile Hospi­tal, oc­ca­sion­ally get­ting lost in parkades and hall­ways and stair­wells on the way to and from her sis­ter’s bed­side. Elf and Yoli’s mother Lot­tie is the rock of the fam­ily, some­how ab­sorb­ing most of the novel’s emo­tional hard­ships with a quiet, stead­fast per­sis­tence. When Elf and Yoli are kids, their quiet, trou­bled fa­ther Jakob takes his own life, hard­en­ing their mother’s spirit for the sor­rows to come. The sis­ters grow up in East Vil­lage, a name fa­mil­iar to read­ers of A Com­pli­cated Kind­ness. In this re­pres­sive Men­non­ite town, Elf’s child­hood mu­si­cal prow­ess is nur­tured be­hind closed doors for fear of judg­ment and reper­cus­sion from the com­mu­nity. She takes to paint­ing “AMPS,” short for “All my puny sor­rows” (a line from a Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge poem), around town. Yoli’s strug­gle through the novel is to con­vince Elf she needs to live — for her, for their mother, for her part­ner. Elf is head­strong and de­ter­mined to die, and for much of the novel the two are dead­locked. Adding to the ten­sion be­tween the sis­ters, Elf even­tu­ally asks Yoli to take her to Switzer­land, where she can die of her own ac­cord. From this point for­ward, Yoli must grap­ple with whether to help her sis­ter die or keep fight­ing for her to live. It’s of­ten tempt­ing to con­flate Toews’ life with her fic­tion; like Yoli, mem­bers of Toews’ fam­ily have a his­tory of strug­gling with men­tal ill­ness and sui­cide. Like Carol Shields’ The Repub­lic of Love and Mar­garet Lau­rence’s Manawaka books, place is so im­por­tant in AMPS, and a gen­uine love of Win­nipeg runs through­out the novel. When not at her sis­ter’s bed­side, Yoli is busted for tex­ting and driv­ing on Sher­brook Street, trav­els El­lice and War­saw av­enues, vis­its a beer ven­dor, Kristina’s restau­rant, Garbage Hill and more. She sits on her friend’s porch in Wolse­ley, drink­ing wine and lis­ten­ing to the ice break up on the river. Ever a Man­i­to­ban, Yoli com­plains about the pot­holes: “Does any­body ever fix this city?” Through­out the novel Toews con­vinc­ingly dis­tin­guishes char­ac­ters through their unique voices — cer­tainly one of her many writerly strengths. At the heart of All My Puny Sor­rows is Yoli’s deep, heart­felt nos­tal­gia: for Win­nipeg, for her sis­ter, for child­hood. Toews’ touch­ing de­pic­tion of Elf and Yoli as teenagers sets the stage for their later, con­flicted re­la­tion­ship. Even though the East Vil­lage com­mu­nity branded Elf and Yoli’s child­hood psy­che with old-or­der guilt and shame — much in the same way Elf brands the town with her “AMPS” grafitti — it’s still a time and place where Yoli’s fam­ily ex­ists in­tact, where men­tal ill­ness and death don’t live so loud. While death weighs heavy through­out All My Puny Sor­rows, Toews ef­fort­lessly dif­fuses its grav­ity with hu­mour as she sees fit, else­where forc­ing her char­ac­ters to deal with grief, loss and de­pres­sion head-on. Through­out the novel runs a strug­gle with (and crit­i­cism of) the med­i­cal sys­tem, es­pe­cially as it per­tains to men­tal ill­ness. The book’s ti­tle en­cap­su­lates both the diminu­tive, self-dep­re­cat­ing na­ture of grow­ing up in a some­what sti­fling Men­non­ite town as well as the gen­uine, soli­tary in­ter­nal an­guish of men­tal ill­ness — the pain may ap­pear small, but can grow into some­thing that Yoli’s sis­ter and fa­ther find overwhelming. Given the di­a­logue re­cently in­cited by Win­nipeg MP Steven Fletcher and many oth­ers re­gard­ing as­sisted sui­cide, All My Puny Sor­rows is timely. Re­gard­less of where people stand on right-to-die is­sues, this novel ten­derly grap­ples with de­ci­sions of the head and the heart with a deft hand. All My Puny Sor­rows is a novel that bal­ances hu­mour and dark­ness, and it will stay with read­ers for a long time. Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the Win­nipeg Free Press

books edi­tor.

TYLER AN­DER­SON / NA­TIONAL POST

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