Writing this column, I generally try not to review more than one book by a particular author. Of course, every rule needs an exception and in this case, it’s Manitoba writer Miriam Toews. It may be because seven years ago I launched this column with her book A Complicated Kindness, which had just won a Governor General’s Award. More likely, it’s because she’s an exceptional writer.
With her new book, Irma Voth, Toews has broken her own rules too. After A Complicated Kindness, she swore she would never write another book based on her Mennonite past. But recent circumstances compelled her to fix, once again, her gaze on this religious community.
Toews recently finished acting in a movie about Mennonites living in Mexico. Acting was new to her, as was the Mexican desert and working with acclaimed movie director Carlos Reygadas. Toews felt she had to explore this world further in a new novel.
Irma Voth, the title character, is a young Mennonite living in Canada. For reasons kept secret at the time, her family suddenly and in the dead of night, moves to Mexico. Relocating due to pressure isn’t unusual for Mennonites, a religious group who often seek shelter in places where they will largely be left in peace to live according to their own doctrine.
Irma and her family settle in Chihuahua. It’s a lonely and desolate country. “If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert.”
As a rash teenager, Irma secretly marries a Mexican named Jorge. Her father is furious and exiles Irma. He lets the couple move into one of the farm’s three houses if they agree to work for no wages. Jorge disappears soon enough. Irma is entirely alone in her house, not allowed even the briefest communication with anyone in her family.
She endures a stifling life of hard work and boredom until the day her iron-fisted father rents the third house to a film crew. Irma is curious and fearful; after all, her father has always told her that art is a lie and an abomination. Irma has never even had a photograph taken of herself.
Soon at the centre of an out-of-money, chaotic and fractious film production, Irma and her wilful sister Aggie find themselves in serious trouble. Events quickly lead toward destruction, until a quick-thinking and desperate Irma makes an irreversible decision.
The opening of the book is languid, as if a dusty boredom settled over everything, including the plot. But once Irma makes up her mind to change her situation, Toews’ brilliant quick wit shines forth.
Although the Mexican setting is a dramatic shift from southern Manitoba, Toews is essentially retelling an age-old story — one of parents abandoning and exiling their children out of a sense of religious morality and complicated love. Irma Voth is populated with quirky, unpredictable and headstrong characters and, as always with Miriam Toews, is told with an original, insightful and irreverently humorous voice.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton. email@example.com