Novel of rape sur­vivors is as­ton­ish­ing and hope­ful

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Pastimes - BY TOM BEER News­day

Al­though the novel is ti­tled “Women Talk­ing,” it is a man that speaks the open­ing line – “My name is Au­gust Epp” – and he will nar­rate the next 216 pages. This is be­cause the women of the novel, eight mem­bers of the Men­non­ite colony of Molotschna in Ukraine, can­not read or write. They have as­sem­bled in a hayloft and asked Epp, a sym­pa­thetic school­teacher, to record the min­utes of their meet­ing. They are the play­ers in this drama; he is their scribe.

Why are they meet­ing? “Since 2005,” Epp ex­plains, “nearly ev­ery girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony be­lieved to be ghosts, or Satan, sup­pos­edly as pun­ish­ment for their sins.” The demons, in fact, are eight men of the colony, who sprayed an an­i­mal anes­thetic on the sleep­ing women be­fore com­mit­ting un­speak­able crimes. Hav­ing learned the truth, the women must de­ter­mine their course of ac­tion.

This is the setup of Miriam Toews’ as­ton­ish­ing new novel, her sev­enth, and it is based, she writes in a prefa­tory note, on ac­tual events that oc­curred at a Men­non­ite colony in Bo­livia be­tween 2005 and 2009. The crimes them­selves are not the fo­cus here, though the few de­tails Toews dis­penses are chilling: Many wake from the at­tacks groggy and bleed­ing; one is im­preg­nated and gives birth pre­ma­turely; a young child suf­fers from vene­real dis­ease.

In­stead, “Women Talk­ing” charts the painstak­ingly elab­o­rate dis­cus­sion among these eight char­ac­ters as they pon­der three choices: “1. Do Noth­ing. 2. Stay and Fight. 3. Leave.” The male bishop of the colony has taught them that they must for­give their tres­passers in or­der to “en­ter the gates of heaven,” yet the women rec­og­nize that “co­erced” for­give­ness is not true for­give­ness.

“And isn’t the lie of pre­tend­ing to for­give with words but not with one’s heart a more griev­ous sin than to sim­ply not for­give?”

Be­fore the 48 hours of this con­clave are up, the women talk­ing will alight on many sub­jects: paci­fism, pa­tri­archy, moral re­spon­si­bil­ity, the na­ture of evil. They’ll de­bate the use of dy­na­mite to open a safe and re­trieve the money within. The re­sult is some­thing be­tween a fem­i­nist con­scious­ness­rais­ing ses­sion and a prison es­cape plot.

All of this is se­ri­ous stuff, but Toews in­jects a wry hu­mor into these pages, a re­flec­tion of her char­ac­ters and their out­look on life, at once earnest and ironic. One smokes clan­des­tinely, then brazenly; one mimes swig­ging from a flask, sug­gest­ing drunk­en­ness, as another goes off on a rant; one tries out an English swear word but man­ages to use it in­cor­rectly.

In a more tra­di­tional novel, these char­ac­ters would be fully fleshed out; here they are sketched lightly: Salome, the an­gry fire­brand; Greta, the el­dest, who “ex­udes a deep melan­cholic dignity”; Ona, the un­mar­ried odd­ball whom Au­gust is not so se­cretly in love with. The cir­cum­stances are so ex­tra­or­di­nary and the di­a­logue so riv­et­ing, that you keep read­ing to see what the women de­cide.

At one junc­ture, the char­ac­ters en­ter into an ar­gu­ment about the uses of metaphor, af­ter Ona quotes from Vir­gil and her mother breaks in, “My love, we’re plot­ting to save our lives right now, so – “But as Ona un­der­stands, metaphor may be one way of grap­pling with and gain­ing per­spec­tive on their dire sit­u­a­tion.

“Did you know,” Ona says, as they con­tem­plate the prospect of leav­ing Molotschna without so much as a map or an iota of book learn­ing, “that the mi­gra­tion pe­riod of but­ter­flies and drag­on­flies is so long that it is of­ten only the grand­chil­dren who ar­rive at the in­tended des­ti­na­tion?” You leave a novel about vi­o­lence and misog­yny lifted up by the women and strangely hope­ful.

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