Family Matters

Reviewed by Tina Trigg

Autobiographical novels by established Canadian authors concerning untimely deaths of family members, the new releases of Miriam Toews and Richard Wagamese seem uncannily similar; most gripping, however, is their mutual ability to examine community for its sheer necessity and spectacular failures. Simultaneously tender and brutal, the novels scrutinize illusions of self-sufficiency by representing a variation of quests that highlight storytelling and expose (false) assumptions about the heroic.

In Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, the heroic is doubly undercut by the Van Riesen sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi (Elf and Yoli). Elf is the epitome of contemporary success: an internationally-renowned pianist, married to a handsome, supportive professional, she is intelligent, quirky, outrageously thin, and stunning. She is also suicidal, depressive, and utterly unable to cope with life. Yoli, the younger sister, seems by all apparent standards, including her own, vastly inferior: she writes young adult rodeo fiction but is hopelessly stalled on her “real book”; she is in the throes of a second divorce and struggles with weight, parenting, low self-esteem, and drinking. However, she is also comical, self-deprecating, and dependable. In short, Yoli is utterly believable and the thread of life—both for Elf and for readers.

Having survived their restrictive Mennonite upbringing and beloved bookish father’s suicide, Yoli feels charged with keeping Elf alive, wrestling with her plea for legally assisted suicide at a Swiss Clinic. The darkness of this plot, however, is shot through with glimmers of light and laughter, inevitably linked to Yoli’s fiascos, folly, and fierce love. Toews’ portrayal of the siblings is raw, complex, and apt; their mutual affection transcends the tedium of hospital room visits in arguments, memories, and candour, underscoring the titular allusion to Coleridge’s sister and confidante of “all my puny sorrows.” Yoli “lives hopefully” in spite of it all.

Such allusion signals one of the novel’s unexpected pleasures: liberally sprinkled throughout are literary allusions, quotations, and intelligent musing about culture, art, music, books, dance, politics, and (inadequate) psychiatric care. Characters temper each other, pointing out excesses (“You’re such a snob”) and creating a subtle self-mockery. Providing no easy answers, the characters’ suffering is tangible, but following Elf’s suicide, extended musing about life choices and guilt is oddly partnered with a too-tidy closure of Yoli, her mother, and daughter residing together in Toronto. Compared to A Complicated Kindness, a tinge of maturity colours the sisters’ middle-aged perspective—though blunt, it is less acerbic. Despite the failures and pain, family and roots (though flawed) are formative and indispensable; theirs is a story that needs telling.

In Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, storytelling is imbued with redemptive qualities and, interestingly, the most accomplished storytellers in the novel are women. Wagamese underscores the need for stories, particularly their brutal honesty. The plain advice that “[w]hen you share stories you change things” applies equally to stories that are wrenched out and those that enchant. Things need to be spoken, not to be perfect; for Eldon Starlight, this means entrusting the story of his life to his son.

Raised by “the old man,” his non-Native guardian, to respect Native traditions and culture, Franklin Starlight, “the kid,” is an outsider everywhere except in Nature. While Toews admirably brings Winnipeg to life, especially through the ice break motif and startling green of spring, Wagamese’s lyric descriptions of the BC interior are breathtaking and abundant, an enactment of life. This sensitive rendering of wilderness provides a necessary counterpoint to the raw, psychologically violent encounter between Frank and his estranged, dying father.

Eldon’s plea for a warrior’s burial in the wilderness is as painful (and unwarranted) to Frank as Elf’s death-wish is to Yoli. Frank, however, concedes and during their slow, tortured journey, Eldon haltingly recounts his story, including Frank’s origins. Although Eldon’s early life is compelling, the narrative pace emphasises the difficulty of his unaccustomed (though possibly heroic) disclosure. In a CBC interview, Wagamese terms the lack of a parent “a profound sorrow;” thus, like Toews, he provides no easy answers to suffering and hides no scars. As the losses accumulate, the respite of Nature becomes as necessary to readers as to Frank. And, the novel’s closure fittingly affirms family, heritage, and identity, situating the kid alongside the old man in knowledge and in Nature.

Wide-ranging and provocative, these novels present quests for validation and perspective which hinge on suffering as integral to love between flawed human beings. Community, largely defined by family, irrevocably fails and yet sustains these characters, and as Toews and Wagamese compellingly remind us, family matters.

This review “Family Matters” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 193-94.

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