Here’s a warning: if you are close to your sister, you may find parts of this book upsetting. Well, I did anyway. (I always cry at books in embarrassing places – usually public transport. It was the case here.) Anyway…
Yolandi, our narrator, and her sister Elfrieda, grow up in a Canadian Mennonite community where their parents scandalise the elders by allowing Elf to play the piano. From the outset it is clear that Elf is special – or at least, she is to Yoli. The two girls grow up and have to deal with the impact of their father throwing himself under a train – an incident that is narrated in a very matter of fact manner that suggests that Yoli has indeed made her peace with the event.
Elf, however, clearly hasn’t. She grows up to become a world famous concert pianist, rich, well travelled and with a host of fans, as well as an adoring partner and a supportive agent. She never references her father’s death but the idea of the ‘suicide gene’ is always implicit here. This drives the main plot – what do you do when your sister, the one person you want to stay alive most in the world, is absolutely set on killing herself?
Yoli, however much she might want to concentrate on Elf, cannot just narrate this – and the novel is the better for it. This is a family novel – Yoli has a mother and aunt to look after as well as two children from two previous marriages – and has to take time out from all of this to have a few sexual flings as well as paying a few visits to her childhood friend Julie . (It’s refreshing to read a novel where the female protagonist is promiscuous without being judged.)
The novel’s core of strong female characters is the strongest aspect – men very much play second fiddle here, they are a convenient plot device occasionally but all the real emotional connection comes with the women.
I had a few quibbles with the language. I think the novel is supposed to be Yoli’s attempt to write Elf’s story (Yoli has grown up to become a writer of young adult books and is attempting to write a serious adult novel as the events of the story unfold) She has a distinct narrative voice, with references to popular culture scattered throughout. Something jars in this, though I can’t pin my finger on what exactly it is. Perhaps it’s just because I think it’s ‘quirky.’
That aside, this is an enjoyable novel (apart from its ability to make me cry, I mean). For me the sign of a good novel is when I nearly miss my bus stop. And the key to this good novel was Yoli – I loved her ordinariness, her problems, her ways of dealing with everything seemed to be the stuff of normal life, not fiction. I haven’t read Miriam Toews before but will be nipping off to find her backlist on the strength of this one.
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews is available to buy now