Author Miriam Toews (pronounced Tayves) has enjoyed modest success in her home country of Canada. Of Mennonite tradition (see sidebar) and hailing from rural Manitoba, many of Toews's novels explore this way of life. She won the 2004 Governor General's Award for Fiction for A Complicated Kindness, and she was awarded the 2008 Writer's Trust Fiction Prize for her novel, The Flying Troutmans. All this to say, Toews has writerly chops.
Irma Voth came about when, in 2006, she was approached to star in a film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. He was taken with her photograph - seen on the jacket of her novel, A Complicated Kindness - and felt she would be perfect to play the role of a Mennonite wife living in northern Mexico, trapped in a troubled marriage. Toews studied film at university but had never acted and, initially, thought Reygadas was a bit nuts. She ignored his emails for a long time but relented when he posited that being in his film "...will give [her] something to write about." (Silent Light, the resulting movie was an independent darling in 2008 and won the Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival that same year.)
And write about it she did. Miriam Toews has a wonderful and minimalist style, and in Irma Voth she explores some familiar themes - a young woman's longing for freedom, getting by on wits alone, and a road trip. She has a great ability to take readers into amazing places that are a little bit strange but a whole lot inviting, and because of her incredible skills, I was very eager to dive into her new novel.
Irma Voth revolves around a simple question posed by our protagonist: "How do I behave in this world without following the directions of my father, my husband, or God?" For a young woman raised within strict, old-order Mennonite beliefs, it is a disturbing question - one that unmoors Irma but also helps to ground her. At the beginning of the story, Irma has been disowned by her very strict and rigid father for secretly marrying a man who is outside of the Mennonite faith. While still residing in a separate house on her father's property, Irma and her husband, Jorge, struggle to communicate and make a go of their new marriage. This attempt is made all the more difficult as Jorge frequently absents himself from home for long periods of time.
Metaphorically, Irma is a widow and orphan at the age of nineteen, even though her family and husband exist. Her mother is portrayed as having two main functions - making babies and being subservient to her husband. Her sister Aggie, at only thirteen-years-old, is strong-willed, and more vocal and rebellious than Irma, though Irma does take her opportunities where she can find them. It is this relationship, the one between sisters, that Toews really explores. The level of maturity and capability of both girls is astounding. There is a resilience and hopefulness in Irma and Aggie that will make you cheer for them as they try to improve their lot in life.
Toews writes honestly and with humour, and her balanced style makes her work accessible to readers. We are given a beautiful literary story that becomes much more real with her interjections of observational wit. Her narrative never seems forced, instead it feels as though you are listening to a friend relay a tale.
This review is from the October 19, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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