Thursday, 4 June 2015

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews



I have read a lot of Canadian fiction the last little while. It's one of those odd bumps that turns up, when suddenly a whole bunch of books from a whole bunch of lists harmonize in front of me. I've gone from Margaret Atwood to Tomson Highway to Miriam Toews in short order. I think that may be it at the moment, but we shall see.

That's really apropos of nothing, I'm just trying to figure how to get into this review. Because, you see, I liked Irma Voth quite a lot, but I'm not quite sure how to start this off. So I'm easing myself in by analyzing what I've been reading. Enough temporizing.

This is the third Toews book I've read, and of the two I've read previously, I really loved A Complicated Kindness and liked A Boy of Good Breeding okay. So I had high hopes for Irma Voth, and I am more than happy with what I found. Like A Complicated Kindness, this one takes place within a Mennonite family. In this case, a Mennonite family that has relocated to Mexico from Canada.

Irma is the oldest daughter in the family (an older sister having died.) She falls in love with a Mexican man and marries him against her father's wishes. Her father manages to manipulate them into taking the house next door, where he can keep his thumb on them. Her husband runs off, possibly because he's involved in drugs, and so she is left alone, cut off from her family next door, with no source of support.

Into the third house in this little patch of land moves a film crew, working on a movie about the Mennonites. Knowing that Miriam Toews was involved in the movie Silent Light, makes it feel like that experience informed the writing on this, although it's hard to know exactly.

Irma gets involved with the shoot as a translator for the German actress brought over to play the lead, who has no languages in common with the director. Her younger sister is increasingly chafing against the rules at home, but Irma feels powerless to intervene.

Two things that really struck me about this book: one, how beautifully Toews' prose captures someone who has things to express that she has no idiom for. The writing as Irma is restrained, but restrained in a way that is bursting at the seams with efforts to express what has, to this point in her life, been inexpressible. That feeling of suppressed emotion really drives this book.

The second is subtle, and comes through mostly in the bits where Irma is translating (wrongly and on purpose) the director's desired lines to the actress, but it extends beyond. There is this theme of the emotions that all the men around them presume the women there have, with the knowledge that what they really want is a blank canvas for their own thoughts. Struggling under the weight of projected emotions, Irma, her mother, and her sister all are much more complex and difficult characters than the father, the director, any of the other men, wish to see.

I also enjoyed that when Irma leaves the farm, this isn't a simplistic tale of the corruption of the big city. There are good people Irma finds, even when small unkindnesses occurs, and she's able to get along instead of being ground down by the relentless wheels of the uncaring city. It feels more true that people are kind and cruel everywhere, it is not just rural or urban that makes them so.

All in all, I really enjoyed this entry into Toews' work, and I am excited in particular to get to All My Puny Sorrows at some point.

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