Tuesday, September 08, 2015

no small feat

All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews

It's been noted by people far wiser and more eloquent than me that Miriam Toews is hilarious even when dealing with the bleakest of subjects. Her latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows, certainly does deal with the bleakest of subjects - one sister who wants desperately to die, one sister who desperately wants her to live. So allow me to jump on the bandwagon here and state that All My Puny Sorrows is absolutely hilarious while being completely heartbreaking.

Yolandi is a bit of a mess. She tends to sleep around without really meaning to, has two kids by different fathers and scrabbles out a living by writing a Young Adult series called Rodeo Rhonda. She is now writing a "real" book,though, about a boat, that she schleps around in a Safeway bag. Yoli has returned to Winnipeg from Toronto because her brilliant, beautiful, talented concert pianist sister, Elfrieda, has tried to kill herself. Again. And now Elfrieda is begging Yolandi to help her to die.

Slightly screwed-up Yoli is enormously likable. (If Miriam Toews can't make it to my fantasy dinner party, then I hope that Yoli can come in her place.) She brings the funny to circumstances that should be anything but. Her self-effacing humour, even as she struggles to stay afloat, to keep various family members happy, and to keep her sister from killing herself, rings strangely true in a heartbreakingly tough situation. Because, of course, Toews drew from her own life to write this novel.

Toews wrote All My Puny Sorrows in the aftermath of her own sister's suicide. Like Yolandi, Toews grew up in the darkness of family depression, having lost her both her father and sister to suicide. 

She has said that as a child, she took it upon herself to be the humourous distraction in the family dynamic, the lightness in all that darkness. That deep understanding of the essential role of laughter within tragedy has resulted in unforgettable people in a remarkable book.

Highly recommended.

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