Toews returns to roots for new novel

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.

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. allenh@telus.net

 

 

Just Posted

The South Okanagan Tim Hortons raised over $4,000 through the three day orange doughnut promotion with 100 per cent of proceeds going to to the Residential School Survivors Society. The owner of these locations matched the amount. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
South Okanagan Tim Hortons raises more than $8K for residential school survivors

More than $4,000 worth of doughnuts were purchased over three days

Lightning in Kelowna, B.C. (Contributed)
Severe thunderstorm watch in effect for Okanagan

Conditions are favourable for the development of severe thunderstorms overnight

Justin Fotherby,17, and Ashley McMillan, 17 have been chosen for an invitation only competition that sees 20 of Canada’s top swimmers per event vying for a spot at the upcoming 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Submitted)
Penticton swimmers off to Olympic trials

The pair are eyeing a spot on the Canadian team heading to the Tokyo Olympics

Bentley resting on a bench at Kal Park in Vernon not knowing there is a baby rattlesnake curled up below. Bentley jumped down and was bit by the snake. (Facebook)
Dog bit by baby rattler at popular Vernon park

The rattlesnake was hidden underneath a park bench when it struck out

Renderings of what the skating rink could look like beside City Hall between Martin and Main in downtown Penticton. (Activate Penticton image)
Outdoor skating rink back at Penticton council

City staff recommend going forward with rink which could host 2022 BCHL’s 60th year celebration

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Calgary Stampeders’ Jerome Messam leaps over a tackle during second half CFL western semifinal football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CFL football will be played this summer in Canada

Governors vote unanimously in favour to start the ‘21 campaign on Aug. 5

Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino holds a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The federal government is announcing that Indigenous people can now apply to reclaim their names on passports and other government documents. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous people can now reclaim traditional names on their passports and other ID

Announcement applies to all individuals of First Nations, Inuit and Métis background

Harvesting hay in the Fraser Valley. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
COVID-19: B.C. waives farm income requirement for a second year

Property owners don’t need minimum income for 2022 taxes

Cruise ship passengers arrive at Juneau, Alaska in 2018. Cruise lines have begun booking passengers for trips from Seattle to Alaska as early as this July, bypassing B.C. ports that are not allowed to have visitors until March 2022 under a Canadian COVID-19 restrictions. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire)
B.C. doesn’t depend on U.S. law to attract cruise ships, Horgan says

Provinces to get update next week on Canada’s border closure

This undated photo provided by Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails shows a scout donating cookies to firefighters in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, as part of the Hometown Heroes program. As the coronavirus pandemic wore into the spring selling season, many Girl Scout troops nixed their traditional cookie booths for safety reasons. That resulted in millions of boxes of unsold cookies. (Girl Scouts of New Mexico Trails via AP)
Thinner Mints: Girl Scouts have millions of unsold cookies

Since majority of cookies are sold in-person, pandemic made the shortfall expected

In this artist’s sketch, Nathaniel Veltman makes a video court appearance in London, Ont., on June 10, 2021 as Justice of the Peace Robert Seneshen (top left) and lawyer Alayna Jay look on. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould
Terror charges laid against London attack suspect

Crown says Nathaniel Veltman’s four counts of first-degree murder constitute an act of terrorism

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province's fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

Most Read