Irma Voth - Miriam Toews
I admit bias; I was fully prepared to love this book.
It's no secret that A Complicated Kindness, the tale of a rebellious teenager in the familiar yet mysterious world of the Mennonites of southeastern Manitoba, ranks highly on my list of favourite novels. Nobody cheered louder than I did when it won Canada Reads a few years ago. So when I learned that Miriam Toews had set her new novel once again in this reclusive religious community, albeit amongst a handful of Canadian Mennonites who had fled to Mexico, I was enthralled. But make no mistake, Irma Voth is not A Complicated Kindness 2.0.
Stifled by the sequestered life of a remote campo near the Sierra Madre mountains, eighteen-year-old Irma Voth meets and secretly marries Jorge, only to be deserted a few months later. After being banished by her strict disciplinarian father, she maintains a covert relationship with her loving but silent mother and her younger sister Aggie, who is beginning to display signs of overt rebelliousness against their religious upbringing. When Irma is hired as a translator by a film-maker who is making an art movie about the Mexican Mennonites, her sense of belonging with the film crew, peripheral though it might be, sets her on the road to self-awareness. But it is only after Irma flees, with Aggie and their newborn baby sister Xemena, to Mexico City, that she honestly begins to confront the tragic secrets that have paralyzed her family.
Miriam Toews has a deceptively simple writing style. Unembellished, matter-of-fact, with no quotation marks to separate conversation from narrative, the writing in Irma Voth feels very much like what it is, the wry relating of events by a young woman not generally given to introspection.
This is a book with a great deal of humour in it. During the reading that Miriam Toews gave recently in Calgary, the audience laughed loudly throughout. She is a gifted storyteller.
But Irma Voth is also a strikingly poignant book. Perhaps I was lulled into a sense of complacency during the first half of the novel, in which the humourous awakenings outweigh the instances of intolerance, perhaps Irma's matter-of-fact voice tempered the brutality. But I was completely unprepared to deal with the dark secrets to which Irma finally gave voice.
Irma Voth is a powerful, funny, and haunting story of finding autonomy, peace, and the strength to forgive yourself. You should read it.