‘Women Talk­ing’ will have you talk­ing

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Emily Gray Tedrowe

Miriam Toews’ as­ton­ish­ing new novel, “Women Talk­ing” (Blooms­bury, 240 pp., ★★★★), of­fers a reading ex­pe­ri­ence to si­mul­ta­ne­ously daz­zle and hor­rify.

Toews takes as her in­spi­ra­tion the true case of the Bo­li­vian “ghost rapes,” per­pe­trated by the men of a re­mote Men­non­ite colony in the mid-2000s, who drugged and raped women and chil­dren and then blamed the at­tacks on Satan as pun­ish­ment for their sins. Af­ter two men were caught in the act, they con­fessed and named sev­eral other com­mu­nity mem­bers who had per­pe­trated these atroc­i­ties for years.

“Women Talk­ing” takes place af­ter the ar­rests, over the course of two nights at a se­cret, women-only meet­ing. While the men of the colony are away in town try­ing to bail out those in jail, a group of trau­ma­tized and brave women gath­ers in a hayloft to de­cide what to do: stay, leave or fight.

Told through the form of min­utes taken by once-out­cast Au­gust Epp, the only man present, eight women and girls from two in­ter­twined fam­i­lies grap­ple with their fu­ture. Ev­ery as­pect of the sit­u­a­tion is per­ilous –hav­ing been for­bid­den to learn to read, write or navigate a map, the women are ut­terly cut off from sur­round­ing so­ci­ety.

Ona Friesen, con­sid­ered dreamy and “off” by oth­ers, is preg­nant by rape and loved by Au­gust Epp with desperate, silent pas­sion. Some of the women ar­gue that for­give­ness is at the heart of their re­li­gion. In her gen­tle, thor­ough way, Ona ques­tions the ba­sic tenets of ev­ery moral taught by the men who have op­pressed them: “But is for­give­ness that is co­erced true for­give­ness?... Can’t there be a ques­tion of for­give­ness that is up to God alone, a cat­e­gory of per­pe­tra­tion of vi­o­lence upon one’s chil­dren, an act so im­pos­si­ble to for­give that God, in His wis­dom, would take ex­clu­sively upon Him­self the re­spon­si­bil­ity for such for­give­ness?”

Oth­ers refuse even to con­sider for­give­ness. Salome, nearly de­ranged by the vi­o­la­tion of her 3-year-old daugh­ter, has at­tacked men of the colony and prom­ises to do so again.

And yet, some­how within this dire sit­u­a­tion, the women of Toews’ novel gen­er­ate hu­mor, imag­i­na­tion and con­cern for each other. The teenage girls braid each other’s hair and roll their eyes in em­bar­rass­ment at hymn singing. Even when in ut­ter op­po­si­tion to each other’s in­cli­na­tions – to stay, fight or leave – the women in the hayloft find ways to al­low ev­ery view­point its fair due. Ten­sion mounts as the time for talk­ing runs out; the men will be back soon, and if the women and chil­dren must es­cape, it’s now or never. A late rev­e­la­tion about Au­gust’s true place in the hayloft blooms into beau­ti­ful mean­ing.

Toews, who has writ­ten of­ten about her own Men­non­ite his­tory, has told a riv­et­ing story that is both in­tensely spe­cific and painfully res­o­nant in the wider world. “Women Talk­ing” is es­sen­tial, ele­men­tal. On the last page, Toews ac­knowl­edges girls and women in pa­tri­ar­chal re­pres­sive so­ci­eties around the globe and sends them a sim­ple, pow­er­ful mes­sage: “Love and sol­i­dar­ity.”

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