Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (2014)

Excerpt from Reading Journal:

Knopf Canada, 2014

Last night I finished reading All My Puny Sorrows, and when I woke up this morning, I was weeping.

This doesn’t reveal how the book ended, because I read more than half of it last night, half-skimming the first half that I’d read on in other sittings. The story is simmered in sadness. Two sisters: one of whom no longer wants to live, the other who does not want her to die.

I knew, if I didn’t finish reading it in one go, I might not return. It might be the perfect book to read to allow one to cozy up to a personal sadness, while reading about Elfrieda (Elf) and Yolandi (Yoli), butI need to keep sadness at arm’s length right now and, yet, I wanted to read this before it made appearances on various prizelists.

There are definitely similarities with other novels that Miriam Toews has written. I could imagine this passage pulled from The Summer of My Amazing Luck.

“We Poor Cousins don’t care at all though, except for when we’re on welfare, broke, starving, unable to buy cool high-tops for our children or pay for their university tuition or purchase massive fourth homes on private islands with helicopter landing pads. But whatever, we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows in our drafty homes but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.”

And this fits with A Complicated Kindness:

“I’d like for us all, my mother, my sister, my kids, Nic, Julie, her kids—even Dan and Finbar and Radek—to live in a tiny isolated community in a remote part of the world where all we have to look at is each other and we are only ever a few metres apart. It would be like an old Mennonite community in Siberia but with happiness.”

And I suppose there was sadness there, too. When I loaned A Complicated Kindness to [a co-worker], she said she didn’t think it was funny at all. It was just painful, she said. And that’s true, I suppose. But Miriam Toews writes about pain and sorrow beautifully.

She doesn’t often rely upon metaphor but, when she does, it strikes home:

“…Elfrieda is so thin, her face so pale, that when she opens her eyes it is like a surprise attack, like one of those air raids that turns night to day.”

And, yet, there is something playful and dynamic about her prose. (“Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.”) Even in All My Puny Sorrows, whose subject matter warns readers to look elsewhere for grandiose joys. (“Wild was the worst thing you could become in a community rigged for compliance.”)

She clearly recognized the challenge from the start. And helpfully shares the advice she likely aimed to follow:

“Plus, it’s hard to write, right? You want to go in, get the job done, and get out. Like when I worked for Renee’s septic tank cleaning. I considered this and realized that it was the best writing advice I’d received in years. In all my life.”

But is this necessarily advice which works for readers?

“It depends where you want to leave your audience, happy and content, innocent again, like babies, or wild and restless and yearning for something they’ve barely known. Both are good.”

As much as All My Puny Sorrows is about both death and life, it is not a story which can leave readers innocent again. Which, I suppose, means we are left with ‘wild’ and ‘restless’ and ‘yearning’.

Or perhaps the goal is something else. Perhaps we are meant to follow the mother’s advice delivered to the child who didn’t like camping: “…well, honey, it’s meant to alter our perception of things.”

All My Puny Sorrows altered my perception. It made me want to bring my sadnesses closer to see if I can’t just go in, get the job done, and get out. And it did make me cry and cry and cry, both in and out of consciousness. But that’s not all.

If writing a novel like All My Puny Sorrows can heal the storyteller, perhaps it can help readers to heal as well.

IFOASmallBadgeMiriam Toews will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings.




  1. […] in the past. Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House claimed the prize in 1999, and Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and Alix Ohlin’s Inside were shortlisted (in 2014 and 2012, respectively). This year’s […]

  2. susan September 28, 2014 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    I definitely want to read it as Toews is coming in Oct. to the book festival here and is going to talk about it. Will hear what she says. thanks for the word. and cheers.

    • Buried In Print September 29, 2014 at 7:57 am - Reply

      Which festival are you going to, Susan? I’ve seen her before and am always impressed by her down-to-earth manner and her willingness to discuss her process and her experiences honestly. I hope you enjoy seeing her too.

  3. Naomi September 4, 2014 at 11:33 am - Reply

    I love the last line of your review – so true! Miriam Toews’ writing style is so beautiful that it doesn’t bother me when I see similarities between her books. I would like to eventually read them all. Nice review!

    • Buried In Print September 15, 2014 at 11:54 am - Reply

      Thanks, Naomi. I’d like to read the couple that I’ve missed too. Her voice is just wonderful and I think rereading would be worthwhile as well.

  4. steph September 3, 2014 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    I’m reading this now and it’s so hard but so beautiful. And I do find the humour in it, too, which I’m grateful for!

    • Buried In Print September 15, 2014 at 11:53 am - Reply

      It’d be unbearable without her distinctive brand of humour, wouldn’t it. Looking forward to your thoughts!

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