Women Talking: Reading in Company

It’s such a good title, for such a good book. Ready to declare Miriam Toews in my top five fav authors ever (those wondering the rest: Toni Morrison, Margaret Laurence, Dave Eggers (I know, I know), Alice Munro and… Miriam Toews) (list subject to change) (do not hold me to these late hour, several drinks decisions).

Like I get home from book club and S. will jokingly ask me about what we gabbed about that night. And he’s right, depending on the book club we spend a lot of time talking about things other than the book. We talk. We talk about Justin and why doesn’t he just apologize already. Mortgages. Costs of daycare. Epidurals. Work-life-balance. Other-middle-class-hetero-white-lady-shit.  But we also talk about the losses, the #metoo, the impossibility of meeting any of the standards. We talk.

And we haven’t been raped in the night for years by our family, friends and neighbours.

So yeah. Women talking is the perfect title for this mostly perfect novel. The recording ‘minutes’ of meetings held over two nights, the book traces the discussions held by a group of eight women from a Mennonite community as they try to decide whether to leave, stay or fight after learning that they – and their children – have been subject to nightly rape by the men of the community. [If you needed additional cause to feel despair today, know that the novel is based on a true story].

The women talk about the implications of all three choices on their faith, their children, their mental health, their possibility for healing. They imagine the consequences and risks, they weigh options and constraints, all while also navigating the care of their children, an impending return of the men, and the reality of packing up a life and heading out into unknown – genuinely – geography without the ability to read.

It is a staggering work for what it reveals about the integrity of belief, of commitment to care for children and self, of the debts felt owed to community.

Woven throughout is a strange little would-be romance between the male- minute taker (because he can write), August Epps, and one of the women, Ona. It features light moments of children needing to be fed, of serious-but-still-hilarious debate over what will happen to the men’s dinners if they leave (like WHO WILL MAKE DINNER IF WE GO), these small moments of humanity make the reading more than just an exercise in re-traumatizing.

Which isn’t the same as saying I’d recommend reading this if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable right now. This book depends on a community to read it with – someone to talk to about what you’re reading, and all the feelings that come with reading it. And of course the option of closing the book entirely. What privilege we have, we readers, to say enough, or not now, or never. Or to reenter the story, knowing Toews is taking care – in providing real, rich characters, in framing it all in philosophy and debate, in showing the ways the women are caring for one another, are prioritizing their needs and their community – that she will not leave us, vulnerable readers that we may be, without someone to talk to, even if we may be in dialogue with fiction.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

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