‘Women Talking’ will have you talking
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.”