One of Canada’s finest spins an­other clas­sic

Toronto nov­el­ist Miriam Toews’ lat­est a very per­sonal tale

Richmond Hill Post - - Books - by Mira Saraf

Miriam Toews made the de­ci­sion to plunge into fic­tion when she was in Win­nipeg work­ing on a ra­dio doc­u­men­tary about sin­gle moth­ers on wel­fare. It struck her that ev­ery­thing she was learn­ing would make ex­cel­lent ma­te­rial for a novel, so she aban­doned the doc­u­men­tary and used the ma­te­rial to cre­ate her own story.

The re­sult? Sum­mer of My Amaz­ing Luck was pub­lished in 1996 by a small in­de­pen­dent press in Win­nipeg, and it was short­listed for the Stephen Lea­cock Me­mo­rial Medal for Hu­mour and the McNally Robin­son Book of the Year Award. Al­most 20 years later, she is still writ­ing fic­tion, with six nov­els and a slew of awards un­der her belt.

Her lat­est, All My Puny Sor­rows, fol­lows sis­ters Yolandi and El­frieda, whose bond is loaded with a close­ness and ten­der­ness that only sib­lings can share. In spite of this, they are bit­terly at odds over one thing: El­frieda’s wish to die and Yolandi’s to keep her alive. Al­though the sto­ry­line and char­ac­ters are fic­tional, the story is very close to her heart: Toews’ own sis­ter com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2010 af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts.

“I wanted to try to make some­thing beau­ti­ful from all of that pain and tragedy, and whether I suc­ceeded, the read­ers will be the judge,” she says.

In ad­di­tion to show­ing us this con­flict, Toews, who now calls Toronto home, cap­tures the hu­man­ity that of­ten is masked by the stigma of men­tal ill­ness. In spite of its grow­ing per­va­sive­ness, stereo­types stub­bornly per­sist and make life for those af­fected all the more dif­fi­cult. Her fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with manic-de­pres­sive dis­or­der (now called bipo­lar dis­or­der) and her sis­ter with de­pres­sion. Al­though people gen­er­ally re­act to these types of af­flic­tions with fear, she wants to teach them other­wise.

“My fa­ther and sis­ter were de­cent, fun-lov­ing, funny, smart people, yet they had these hor­ri­ble, cruel ill­nesses,” she says. “Part of the hope is that people learn some­thing, are a lit­tle bit less afraid, a lit­tle more open and come to an un­der­stand­ing of cer­tain things.”

She also touches on the at­ti­tudes of psy­chi­atric staff and the ten­dency to blame pa­tients and make them feel like li­a­bil­i­ties, a pill that is dif­fi­cult for fam­ily and loved ones to swal­low. She does make the caveat that there are ex­cep­tions to this, and that some in­di­vid­u­als pro­vide ex­cel­lent care.

“I see the world as a tragic place, a com­i­cal place, an ab­surd place, a ridicu­lous place, a heart­break­ing place, all of those things,” she says. “And the re­la­tion­ships of the char­ac­ters of the book, be­tween Elf and Yoli or be­tween Lot­tie and her daugh­ters or even Yoli with the var­i­ous men she was with or her kids, there’s hu­mour in that.”

This light­ness per­vades the en­tire story. The bal­ance she has struck makes us able to re­late re­gard­less of our ex­pe­ri­ences.

Miriam Toews

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