This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Women Talking by Miriam Toews.
A horrific discovery prompts the women of two families to gather in secret and do something unheard of in their isolated, patriarchal community: choose. I read this stunning, disquieting tale — all the more disquieting for its genesis in real events — with my heart in my throat. — Tove H.
, Miriam Toews's stunning new novel, should be boring. It’s a book-length conversation between a contentious group of women who rarely complete a thought, and whose discourse is being captured by a hopelessly lovelorn and socially isolated young man. The women burst into song, argue philosophy, and talk in circles; August Epp, their scribe, goes on metaphorical tangents that confuse characters and reader alike. In lesser hands, Women Talking
risks being the book equivalent of an Ethan Hawke film. In Toews’s hands, it is cutting and brilliant.
One of the startling reminders of Women Talking
is that women talking — being allowed to think aloud and faultily, being heard, questioning their purpose in a way that leads to real change — is still a revolutionary act. The fact that Toews’s characters are Mennonite women contending with a long series of brutal rapes by their kinsmen heightens the radicalism inherent in female conversation. While the men are temporarily away from the settlement seeking bail for the rapists, the novel’s women gather in a hayloft with the sympathetic Epp to debate one thing: Stay and fight, or escape. The conversation meanders through theology, motherhood, comical rivalries, and sisterly allegiances, but the central tension — Stay or go? Decide quickly! — leaves the reader with bated breath, racing through the pages.
Toews’s narrative doesn’t dwell on the rapes, which makes the details that do emerge — a three-year-old with an STD, an elderly woman’s teeth ground into powder under her attacker’s hand — all the more horrifying for the prosaic way the women introduce them into the dialogue. These are women who are used to being exploited and silenced, but they’re not docile or ignorant. Toews imbues each figure with indelible quirks and a philosophical outlook informed by the characters’ life-long attempts to reconcile the comfort and beauty of faith and kinship with their experiences living in a patriarchal community that insists its victims forgive their rapists or be barred from Heaven.
In Women Talking
, Toews captures the tragicomedy and astuteness of her Mennonite characters — isolated women who can’t read a book or a map, but nevertheless find the intellectual and physical courage to question the only home they’ve ever known. Full of sharp, surprising conversation, Women Talking
explores universal themes of autonomy, justice, faith, community, and love while illuminating the deep intimacies and peculiarities of a fascinating group of unexpected heroines.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here