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Summary and book reviews of Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Women Talking

by Miriam Toews

Women Talking by Miriam Toews X
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2019, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

Based on real events and told through the "minutes" of the women's all-female symposium, Toews's masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women - all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in - have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they've ever known or should they dare to escape?

My name is August Epp—irrelevant for all purposes, other than that I’ve been appointed the minute-taker for the women’s meetings because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves. And as these are the minutes, and I the minute-taker (and as I am a schoolteacher and daily instruct my students to do the same), I feel my name should be included at the top of the page together with the date. Ona Friesen, also of the Molotschna Colony, is the woman who asked me if I’d take the minutes—although she didn’t use the word “minutes” but rather asked if I would record the meetings and create a document pertaining to them.

We had this conversation last evening, standing on the dirt path between her house and the shed where I’ve been lodged since returning to the colony seven months ago. (A temporary arrangement, according to Peters, the bishop of Molotschna. “Temporary” could mean any length of time because Peters ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Women Talking begins with "A Note on the Novel" which explains that the story is a fictionalized account of real events. What is the difference between reading this novel versus reading a news story or nonfiction book about these events? What questions does Women Talking encourage readers to ask themselves about these events and the environment in which they occur?
  2. The book is told through August Epp's notes from the women's meetings. Why does Toews choose Epp to narrate this story? How does his perspective, gender, and personal history affect the vantage from which the story is told?
  3. The women frequently discuss the complexity of continuing to love many of the men in their community despite their fear and they contemplate the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review Members Only (699 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

New York Times
By loosening the tongues of disenfranchised women and engaging them in substantive dialogue about their lives, Toews grants them agency they haven’t enjoyed in life. By refusing to focus on the crimes that launched this existential reappraisal, she treats them as dignified individuals rather than props in a voyeuristic entertainment. The only problem with this approach is that the grotesque and bizarre crime wave that launches the narrative remains all but unfathomable. It looms in the background, begging to be dramatized and explained.

Washington Post
This is fiction as deliberation, and yet it feels packed with drama. It also feels infused with a deeply sympathetic understanding of the way women talk...Though Toews remains frustratingly unknown in the United States, she has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors. The compressed structure of Women Talking makes it unlike her earlier novels, but once again she draws us into the lives of obscure people and makes their survival feel as crucial and precarious as our own.

NPR
[A]stonishing...Toews' emphasis on names and definitions serves to highlight how precise her own writing is, and how smart. The intelligence on display in Women Talking is as ferocious as it is warm.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Powerful ... This is an inspiring and unforgettable novel.

Booklist
Starred Review. [A] sharp blade of a novel ... Toews' knowing wit and grasp of dire subjects align her with Margaret Atwood, while her novel's slicing concision and nearly Socratic dialogue has the impact of a courtroom drama or a Greek tragedy.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. An exquisite critique of patriarchal culture ... riveting and revelatory ... Stunningly original and altogether arresting.

Literary Review of Canada
Women Talking wants another world to be possible, and in the re-scripting of reality into fiction, attempts to imagine it where it has not yet grown of its own volition ... The novel reminds us how difficult it is to know how to live, forgive others or ourselves, seek justice, or know freedom. No matter the depth of their solidarity, we can imagine that each individual will undoubtedly spend a lifetime coming to their own answers, seeking knowledge with their own hard-won words. But we can hope that the common questions asked by women talking, by Women Talking - their listening, their anger and love, their sometimes vastly differing conclusions - might offer a further way of seeing and finally choosing.

Author Blurb Margaret Atwood, on Twitter
This amazing, sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of The Handmaid's Tale.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Patriarchy in the Mennonite Community

Miriam Toews' novel Women Talking is inspired by events that took place in Manitoba Colony, a Mennonite community in eastern Bolivia with a population of about 2,000. From 2005-2009, hundreds of girls and women were drugged and raped during the night, which religious leadership claimed was the work of God or the devil, punishing them for their sins. In reality, a group of eight men from the community were using an anesthetic made for cattle on the women and attacking them while they were unconscious, night after night, often assaulting multiple women in a single home before moving on. In 2011, these eight men, ranging from ages 20 to 48 were convicted of sexual assault; seven of them were sentenced to 25 years, and the eighth, deemed an ...

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