Last year I had the opportunity to hear Miriam Toews speak. I had never read any of her books but the one she was to speak about sounded interesting so I bought a copy for her recent novel, Women Talking, to sign for me. I kept shifting the book down my TBR pile as the subject matter promised to be heavy but I have finally read it as I believed myself to be in the correct head space.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Feminism
Based on actual events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and assaulted in the night by what they were told (by the men of the colony) were “ghosts” or “demons,” Miriam Toews’ bold and affecting novel Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events.
The novel takes place over forty-eight hours, as eight women gather in secret in a neighbour’s barn while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the attackers. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man trusted and invited by the women to witness the conversation–a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women speak.
By turns poignant, witty, acerbic, bitter, tender, devastating, and heartbreaking, the voices in this extraordinary novel are unforgettable. Toews has chosen to focus the novel tightly on a particular time and place, and yet it contains within its 48 hours and setting inside a hayloft an entire vast universe of thinking and feeling about the experience of women (and therefore men, too) in our contemporary world. In a word: astonishing.
I was right to have saved this book for a time when I could fully appreciate the content – it has so many talking points and issues for the reader to think about. The issues are raised through ordinary conversation between a group of women. At no time did I feel that Toews was pushing her beliefs onto me. Instead, the points she wanted to raise were subtly woven within a discussion on how the women would react to the rapes that had occured within their community.
Even though Women Talking is a relatively short novel at 216 pages, it is a novel filled with women’s issues. Yes, it is a book on feminism. And no, it is not one of those ‘shouty’ books that aggressively denounces men. Instead, it centres around ordinary women who come to realise that they have the power to make their own decisions and be the navigators of their own lives. The Mennonite women described in the novel live in a staunch patriarchal society in which the men have absolute power over them. It is a norm which, up until then, had been accepted by the women with no question.
I love how the women talk through their decision – each one making a valid argument. The narrator and recorder of the discussion, August Epp, is seen as being different from the other Mennonite men. Unlike them, he has lived in the outside world; and has not the strength to till the fields as the other men do. He shows respect towards the women and, as such, is trusted by them.
Reading this novel brought home to me that, even though we have progressed so far as a society with women’s rights, there are still women out there who do not have the freedom to do what I take for granted. It saddens me to think that there are still groups of people who see women as being the lesser gender and who have taken away their right to bloom. Not that the society I live in is perfect – but at least I have the opportunity to make my choices; and the freedom to read and learn.
Women Talking by Mirian Toews is a book that digs into the experience of the Mennonite women. It is an eye-opening account of a group of women living in a patriarchal society that, unfortunately, still exists in the modern world. This skillfully written discussion is one that will leave you in a thoughtful mood and reflecting on your own personal experience.
I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 5 stars
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019
(This novel was the 51st in my book pledge for 2019)