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August 30, 2018

Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

“No Ernie, says Agata, there’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” 

Women Talking, the latest novel by Miriam Toews, is not an easy read. Not easy because of the places it takes its readers to—the women talking in Women Talking are women from a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women whose husbands/brothers/sons have been accused to raping the women while they were sleeping, incidents based on real events, so-called “ghost rapes,” and it’s how women respond to and try to move on from this trauma that raised important questions for Toews as she considered writing this book, more than the fact of the violence itself. Because violence is ubiquitous. As Toews said in conversation with Rachel Giese when I went to see her last week, she can imagine what a rape is like. But what happens after—how do you imagine a way through that? And then she said something else, an echo of line in the novel which I read a few days later: “We are all victims, says Mariche./ True, Salome says, but our responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.”

This line reminded me of Jia Tolentino’s article in The New Yorker on The Women’s March in 2017, and the way that so many were quick to jump on organizational conflicts and disagreements as a way to dismiss the movement altogether. Scoffing is often what happens when we hear about women talking—it’s either idle gossip, or else a petty scrap. A catfight. Women talking—it’s on the background, unless the voices are shrill. Or when they’re allowed to be a chorus. But in her novel, Toews dares to make women talking everything. The “there’s no plot” line is a funny meta-joke. But this is difficult too, on a practical level. To follow along with the conversations, to discern who these people speaking are as we’re just beginning to know them as characters. And Toews complicates the work further by refusing to make any of her characters just one thing—these are women who are difficult, who argue with each other out of spite, who contradict themselves and turn their own arguments inside-out, because this is what thinking is. For the first half of the novel, I confess that I was a little bit lost, finding the narrative hard to follow, and not remotely sure how the whole thing would come together.

But then mid-way through, something happened—it was like the walls started closing in on the threat to these women in the hayloft talking, these women who were daring to defy their husbands, brothers, sons. To explore the three options available to them: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave, but then the men who’ve gone to the city to post bail for the others could return at any time. And suddenly this novel without a plot takes on the most furious momentum and becomes unputdownable. In this novel in which nothing’s happened yet, something is going to have to give—but what?

The women talking in the novel are people who’ve never learned to read or write, who cannot read a map, and know nothing about the world beyond the boundaries of their communities. (I read this book right after Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker, which is such a completely different novel in spirit, but there’s a kinship between them.) As the women in the novel are illiterate, writing down the minutes of their meeting is tasked to August Epp, an estranged member of the community who has returned after years away to serve as a school teacher (which is basically to be a failed farmer, and shameful occupation for a man). And August’s own complicated story, and his love for Ona, one of the women whose words he’s recording, becomes a foundation for the novel, as it would be, although just why or how does not become apparent until the conclusion, which only adds to its devastating and beautiful ambiguity.

3 thoughts on “Women Talking, by Miriam Toews”

  1. Kate says:

    that is a mysterious and seductive review … i wonder a little about my feelings even.. ‘devastating and beautiful ambiguity’.. indeed. (not snarky …:)

  2. Sharon says:

    I just finished the book and WISH we could hash it out together. I have NOTES.

  3. Dora Dueck says:

    I loved this book and reviewed it too (at my blog) and very much agree with what you say about everything. Thank you. An important book.

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