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BookBrowse Reviews Women Talking by Miriam Toews

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Women Talking

by Miriam Toews

Women Talking by Miriam Toews X
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2019, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Based on real events and told through the "minutes" of the women's all-female symposium, this is a tale of women claiming their own power to decide.

Miriam Toews' Women Talking is a circadian novel, unfolding over a span of just a few hours and taking place almost entirely in a single room. This room is a barn located in the fictional Mennonite community of Molotschna, and the book's title epitomizes its entire plot: The women of Molotschna have gathered together to discuss whether or not they should leave the community en masse.

This debate has sprung from horrifying events that are based on a true story (see Beyond the Book). The women of Molotschna have been visited by "ghosts" in the night that drugged and raped them. When one of these "ghosts" was caught and discovered to be an ordinary denizen of the community, he confessed and implicated several other men in the assaults. After one of the victims attempted to murder one of the attackers with a scythe, the police were called to arrest the perpetrators for their own safety, but the rest of Molotschna's men have traveled to the town where they were being held shortly thereafter to post bail. While they are away, the women discuss their options—whether they should leave, or stay and try to find a way to protect themselves from future attacks.

The events of this meeting are recorded by the narrator, August Epp, a man who grew up in Molotschna but moved to England after his parents were excommunicated from the Mennonite church. August returned in 2008 and began teaching school in the community. The attacks ended in 2009, and the conversation takes place in the immediate aftermath. Over the course of the novel, Toews reveals August's background piece by piece as he faithfully copies down the women's words and recalls his youth in Molotschna, his time in an English prison after falling in with a bad crowd, and the battle with depression that caused him to come home to the community.

The situation in Molotschna is presented through a feminist lens, as Toews highlights the patriarchal system of the Mennonites that has forced the women into making this difficult decision. They have been given the choice by the church elder to "forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone's place in heaven" or to leave the community. This proffered "choice" capitalizes on the women's faith and attempts to manipulate them into an act of clemency that would absolve their attackers (and conveniently solve the colony's legal troubles). This incites a nuanced conversation about religion and what the women owe to God, to the community, to themselves and to their children. If only God can truly grant forgiveness from sins, the women wonder, what does it matter if they choose to forgive or not? For that matter, "is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness?" The discussion is further complicated by the fact that many of the women present are married and/or have sons that they would have to leave behind if they chose to go.

Horrifying details of the attacks are gradually revealed, largely through August's asides while recording the conversation. These are occasionally difficult to stomach, particularly with regard to an assault on a young child. But they help build a greater understanding of the enormity of what is being asked of the women through a potential act of forgiveness.

It is slightly odd, however, that a male narrator delivers this story to the reader. Why aren't the women's voices enough? August's backstory adds another layer to the plot, and with his childhood in the colony and his adulthood in the world, he offers an outsider's perspective that is helpful to the women in this moment. But personally, I would have preferred to learn more about these women's lives instead.

The conversation among the women is riveting, philosophical, and even occasionally funny, as they consistently argue with one another like siblings (which some of them are). It is profoundly deep and often emotionally meaningful. Despite the odd setting, the women are relatable, particularly from a feminist perspective; what woman hasn't felt like her humanity is in question at some point or another, or been asked to forgive something inexcusable so as not to rock the boat? Dramatic specifics aside, these are universal issues and Toews' considers them with depth and remarkable clarity.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2019, and has been updated for the March 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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