Woman Listening

Reviewed by Natalie Boldt

Miriam Toews needs no introduction. Her newest novel, however, does. “Between 2005 and 2009,” writes Toews in an explanatory note, “in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia . . . many girls and women would wake in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night.” Initially attributed to “wild female imagination” and then to Satan, the attacks were eventually traced, correctly, to members of the colony—many of them relatives of the women—who had been using animal anaesthetic to render entire families unconscious and rape the women in their beds. In 2011, a Bolivian court found eight men guilty in the assault of over 130 (some reports state 300) women and girls ranging in age from three to well over sixty.

In spite of the international coverage that this trial received, relatively little is known about the women’s reactions in the days and even years following these appalling events. Toews’ novel, Women Talking, picks up the story in 2009, shortly after the remaining able-bodied men have left the colony to post bail for the attackers, and imagines the kinds of conversations that might have taken place among the women with the men in absentia. In the two-day window before they return, eight women and one man (the local schoolteacher, who is their scribe and the book’s narrator) meet in secret to discuss their options—in Toews’ account, the option to (1) stay and do nothing, (2) stay and fight, or (3) leave and start over. The narrative that results is poignant and powerful and, much like Toews’ earlier work, a delicate balance of darkness and light.

In the tradition of her first novel, A Complicated Kindness, Toews’ Women Talking communicates the harms perpetuated by a religion that has been—and still is—wielded with a will to dominate alongside a gentler version: one that yields to experience, empowers through love, encourages forgiveness, and, when forgiveness is impossible, relies on grace. Certainly, grace for one another is something that her characters have in abundance and it, along with their resilience, anger, and, yes, even humour, is what makes them memorable. Like Nomi, Elf, and Yoli before them, the women in this novel are wonderfully round. From the patient matriarchs Greta Loewen and Agata Friesen, to fierce Salome (who, the narrator tells us, took a scythe to her daughter’s abuser), to the two youngest women, Autje and Neitje, who roll their socks down “rebelliously (and stylishly) into little doughnuts” and wear their kerchiefs around their wrists, these are women I want desperately to know. In their variety, they are also a collective reminder that, as one character muses, there is no right way to respond to trauma: “responses are varied and one is not more or less appropriate than the other.”

Women Talking is a difficult novel, but it is well supported by Toews’ careful storytelling, the exacting—and sometimes conflicting—insights of her characters, and the obvious skill that went into crafting them. Well-wrought and thought provoking, Women Talking is Toews at her very best.

This review “Woman Listening” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 168-169.

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