All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews Book Review

I read Miriam Toews A Complicated Kindness a few years ago and loved her wry humoured approach to a 16 year old’s rebellion against her strict Mennonite upbringing. I laughed. It was a poignant and very funny coming of age story.

In All My Puny Sorrows she draws on that same wry but very humane humour to show two sisters working through life’s deep sorrows including depression, mental illness and suicide.

That Toews draws heavily on her own family history in which both her father and her sister commit suicide lends the novel an even greater poignancy. This is real life. This happens to real people.

And that is one of the outstanding elements of this novel. It’s messy. The siblings (there are no other brothers or sisters) love each other. They’re complete opposites, one a happily married and accomplished world class pianist who suffers from deep depression. The other a divorced mother who drinks too much, sleeps around a lot and raises her two kids when she’s not saving her sister.

The ‘sister relationship’ is a curious thing. Having several sisters myself I know how I feel. I’ve seen what each of us has done when one of us is down. We are different from each other, we quarrel very occasionally, sometimes we poke fun and push buttons (because we know how better than anyone else) but wow, watch out if one of us goes down. It’s fierce love. I’ve witnessed it and lived it first hand.

It’s that relationship that this book explores so well. That fierce unconditional love that shakes your life upside down and forces you to consider in the name of love what you would do for this person. I cried when Yoli’s son says to her – “Mom you’re a good sister.” Elf has asked Yoli to take her to “Switzerland” – a euphemism for doctor assisted suicide. As much as she wants her sister to live, watching her suffer is worse. And love means allowing her to die a peaceful death.

I don’t want to spoil the plot so I’ll stop here. Read the book to find out what happens. But I thought that this book raises a vital point that deserves a robust and rigorous discussion – doctor assisted suicide not just for terminally ill patients but for patients who suffer from mental illness. As a Canadian there is a lot of discussion of doctor assisted suicide which appears to be interminably ‘before the courts’.

By the time I finished the book I had decided what side of the divide I stood on this contentious but important issue.  So I raised this question with my husband. What would you do? I said.  My husband’s first wife commit suicide as a result of depression. When I read everything that Yoli did for her sister I thought of him non-stop realizing he faced a similar situation. His best friend also commit suicide as a result of mental illness.

He was very clear in his thoughts. He would never assist someone who suffered from depression in ending their own life. He would fight tirelessly to find a solution. Even when working with a psychiatric community that seems incredibly lacking in compassion and seems often incompetent. There are moments in the book when you almost feel that if they could just get the right support, the right combination of drugs, the right psychiatrist, the right something that things could turn around. But the community that Toews shows seem heartless at best, incompetent at worst. My husband feels the same way.

I still don’t know what I would do. I’ve never had to face this situation but reading All My Puny Sorrows (a line from a Coleridge poem)  has made me think and discuss this issue again and again and again.

While this is a dark and difficult topic, Toews’ writing, humanity and humour shine through, just as it often does in real life, even in the toughest of situations.



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