Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam ToewsAll My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Published by Knopf Canada on April 15th, 2014
Genres: Literary Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Ottawa Library

You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.

But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.

Suicide. Can it run in a family like a genetic disease? This is how it appears to be in All My Puny Sorrows: Elfrieda and Yolandi are the grown-up daughters of a man who threw himself under a train. Now, Yolandi is struggling to prevent her elder sister from performing the same act of self-hatred.
All My Puny Sorrows is an intense, complex story featuring together the fight against depression, family repercussions, and the effect of history on a particular individual.

Indeed, in the background of All My Puny Sorrows is the story of a culture that won’t dissolve without a fight. The Von Reisen family descends from Mennonite refugees who fled persecutions in Russia and settled in Canada, where they went on forming a small traditional community. Yolandi states that “suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next”. Could the offsprings of this community, plagued by suicide, be suffering from their ancestors’ trauma? Could this be the sole explanation?
The despair of Yolandi’s father however feels familiar: he is the archetype of an in-between generation, a symbol of transition. While he aspires to embrace the possibilities offered by a new and free world (in his case, through culture and knowledge), he’s also reluctant to stand against the stiff rules of his community, represented by “the elders” who frown upon any deviation from traditionalism. All his life, he was torn by contradictory aspirations impossible to conciliate. Could the frustration lead to his self-inflicted death?
Finally, Elfrieda was at the same time a progressive freethinker and a very empathic young girl. She broke the Mennonite rules by being a pianist and attending college, but she also noticed the social pressure her father had to bear to let her live her dream. It was a deliberate but extremely painful sacrifice, which made him an outcast in his community. Is Elfrieda plagued with guilt?
The misery cascading down the Von Reisen family tree is a fascinating aspect of All My Puny Sorrows. It raises many questions, one of those being: how do you heal a wound inflicted so long ago that you might not even know where it comes from (Russian persecution, uprooting and emigration, adaptation and opening of the community towards the outside world)?

My second favourite thing in All My Puny Sorrows was simply the point of view: there is no pitying over a suicidal character in this novel; it’s actually more about how Elfrieda affects her entourage and especially her sister Yolandi. Just like the century-old trauma stumbles down the family tree, the effect of the depression also seems to spread horizontally towards the rest of the family, much like a pool of water. The extended Van Reisen family flies to Winnipeg to support her, and she only increases their sorrow by refusing to talk or by requesting an assisted suicide. I really appreciated how the book put the relatives in the spotlight and especially the two incredible arguments between the sisters in the hospital, when Yolandi screams her distress and her need for support, and tries to claim the right of feeling down for the rest of the family.

Don’t you think that mom has suffered enough with dad and all that shit and now, what, you love the perverse idea of a fucking encore?

The most impressive achievement of All My Puny Sorrows is managing to be nevertheless funny, as only trivial little things can appears comical by contrast in the middle of an utter tragedy. All My Puny Sorrows is heart-breaking but not depressing. It’s a fantastic novel about resilience in the face of an intangible, powerful foe. This family, a “pathetic army’s last line of defence” as Yolandi puts it, is an inspiration to keep going, together, despite the burden of an unbearable heritage and the crumbling of traditions. This novel is an eye-opener about depression, raising important questions such as the right to die, but also about the toll depression takes on the sufferer’s entourage. Highly recommended read.