Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, girls and women woke drowsy and bleeding for mysterious reasons that were eventually attributed to eight men who’d been knocking them out with animal anaesthetic and raping them. Canadian Miriam Toews, several novels into a brilliant career, fictionalises these events in this slim, taut novel that opens on several of the women gathering in secret in an attic to discuss their plans as the perpetrators’ release from prison is nigh.
The two days before the men return to the colony are spent in a layered expanse of debate, rich with implication and moral texture. If the women have in effect been preyed upon by animals, should they respond in kind? And what in the end does this mean? Are animals capable of perspective? Are dragonflies, for instance, capable of setting out on a course of action knowing they may not see the end of their journey, but that their offspring might? So spins the narrative.
It’s a dreadful story, but Toews – who herself grew up in a Mennonite town – is such a supple novelist that it feels at once urgent, smooth and calm. It’s told through transcription by the only man in the attic, August, a “two-bit schoolteacher, a failed farmer … an effeminate man, and, above all, a believer” who’s returned after excommunication. Because the women are illiterate, this, too, opens into a discussion on the nature and purpose of the transcription.
August is reminded “that the women had asked me to take the minutes of their meetings only because I was able to translate and to write, and I should not feel obliged to offer inspirational counselling”. His transcript is droll, even liquid and light, a quality highlighted by the painful, poisonous details that slowly make their way into the reader’s consciousness. The women don’t leave – the community elders refer to the rapists as “unwelcome visitors”. Peters, the leader, who has his own link to August, sometimes claims the women were being raped by Satan and at other times that the attacks were the result of “wild female imagination”.
The women’s motivations are simple: they want their children to be safe, they want to be steadfast in their faith, and they want to think. But there are myriad ways to do and be these things, which accounts for the novel’s depth. As one character says, the conversation is “a perfect beginning”. CR
Faber, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Miriam Toews, Women Talking ". Subscribe here.