When I was a young mother, living in Caracas Venezuela, my in-laws came to visit. We had a penthouse apartment which overlooked the Avila mountains and a new baby daughter, four months old. One afternoon, I realized we'd left the baby asleep by herself in the living room, and suddenly I panicked. "Where's the baby?" I asked.
"Oh, she's out walking the parapet," my father in law replied calmly. It was funny at the time - highlighting the unreasonable anxieties that accompany new motherhood. And yet, when I think about it now, I realize that this daughter - now in her early thirties, has always been a person who is likely to be out walking parapets. That is, she has always taken risks and flies very high. She also suffers lows. In some ways, she seems overqualified for life: brilliant, insightful and possessing emotional and psychological depths that go beyond the rest of us. In many ways she is our beacon, our high end. But yet her ability to gaze unrelentingly into the abyss from her tremulous parapets, also makes her prone to despair.
She reminds me a little bit of Elfrieda in Miriam Toew's heartbreaking novel All My Puny Sorrows.
Not that my daughter is suicidal like Elfrieda, but that she isn't afraid to visit the depths of human sorrow. Every silver lining must have its dark cloud.
But on the opposite end of the spectrum live the perennial optimists among us - those whose lightness of touch keeps them immune to despair and helps them survive the same darkest hours. This kind of person is typified in Lottie, the mother of Elfrieda and Yoli in this novel.
Maybe you fit in to one of these categories yourself, or you might know others who do. The title All My Puny Sorrows
comes from a Coleridge poem, which reads in part:
I too a SISTER had, an only Sister —
She lov’d me dearly, and I doted on her!
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows,
(As a sick Patient in a Nurse’s arms)
And of the heart those hidden maladies
That shrink asham'd from even Friendship's eye.
O! I have woke at midnight, and have wept,
Because SHE WAS NOT!
Yes, this is a novel about sisters, as well as a novel about two kinds of people. Yoli is the narrator and mostly she writes about her brilliant sister Elf. But she also writes about her mother Lottie - the optimist, the courageous and dauntless survivor.
Much of the material in this book comes from real life experience. Like the Von Reisen family in her novel, Miriam Toews grew up in a Canadian Mennonite community, and like Yolandi, Toews lived through and beyond family suicides. This novel will break your heart with its honesty, its humor, its bravery and intelligence, even as it nourishes you with its fearlessness. It takes you to the depths but doesn't leave you there.
Has there ever been a more charming, beguiling and exasperating character than Elfrieda Von Reisen? She's beautiful and a brilliant pianist who feels like she has a glass piano inside her which might break any moment. Yoli her younger sister is a mess by comparison. She has two children by two different men and is raising them alone and she's also struggling to make ends meet by writing a series of rodeo books. She has none of the glamor, money or security of her sister who has a wonderful husband at her side. Nic is not only emotionally intelligent but he has interests of his own and dotes on Elf.
So why does Elf want to end her life?
"Did Elf have a terminal illness?" Yoli wonders early in the novel. "Was she cursed genetically from day
one to want to die? was every seemingly happy moment from her past,
every smile, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist pump and
triumph just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and
There isn't an answer. Except that Elf feels things too deeply. She wants to end her life because she cannot bear it. Early in the book, she cant bring herself to celebrate Christmas with the family. Instead she stays in the bathroom banging her head against the wall while Yoli "wanted to see her weird eyes flash happiness while
she told hilarious stories using the occasional French or Italian word ... I wanted to sit next to her and feel the heart
she radiated the energy of a fearless leader, a girl who moved easily in
the world, my older sister. "
One of the men in Yoli's life - who is also a musician and more in love with Elf than with Yoli - is not surprised to hear about Elf's suffering. Once he heard her play in Prague. And "when I listened to her play I felt I should not be there in the same
room with her. There were hundreds of people but nobody left - it was a
private pain," he says. " By private I mean to say unknowable. Only the music knew
and it held secrets so that her playing was a puzzle, a whisper, and
people afterwards stood in the bar and drank and said nothing because
they were complicit."
I should also mention that this novel is wickedly funny. The survivors! The desperation! The craziness of life with all its puny setbacks comes across as exuberant and brave. For instance, at one point, while his wife Elf is in the ICU after a suicide attempt, Nic notices that his eyes seem always to be running clear liquid.
"You're crying Nic," Yoli tells him. "That's what they call crying. But all the time, he asks. I'm not even conscious of it then. It's a new kind of crying I said for new times."
And then there's Lottie, Elf and Yoli's amazing mother, an online Scrabble player who survives it all - who makes friends with everybody, who keeps on going no matter what - reading murder mysteries, following sports, ever the eternal optimist. She has survived her husband's suicide, and her niece's suicide, and when her sister Tina is in the cardio unit after suffering a heart attack and her daughter Elf is in the ICU she remarks, "Everyone will survive eventually."
But let's be clear: it's not as though Elf is incapable of helping others to survive. She helps Yoli survive a heartbreak early in the novel by sending her letters - a quote from a Paul Valery poem one word per letter "so that it took me months to figure out. Breath, dream, silence, invincible, calm, you will triumph."
And how about the way she chases off a sanctimonious Mennonite priest who visits her in the psych ward by doing a striptease to a Philip Larkin poem!
In the end this novel is a plea for understanding human nature. We have survival instincts, but some of us also have instincts to end it all. And if you love somebody who pleads with you to help them end their life, what are you supposed to do? Do you help them do it, or do you fight them and become their enemy?
At one point Toews quotes Goethe: "Suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man , and in every epoch must be discussed anew."
Above all, in order to survive something we have to know what it is we are surviving. I've found this an interesting question to ask myself. What am I surviving?
All My Puny Sorrows
is a deeply compassionate, exuberant, funny and heartbreaking book about sisterhood, family and the difficult task of survival.
#miriamtoews #mypunysorrows #bookclubreadsisters