Book: All My Puny Sorrows
Author: Miriam Toews
Genre: Canlit, Fiction, Contemporary
Published: 2014, Knopf Canada
Trigger warning: deals with themes of depression and suicide.
“Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life.
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.”
When Esi Edugyan, a contemporary Canadian author, was in graduate school in America, she made up a game: her peers had to name 10 Canadian authors, and if they could, she would buy all their drinks. Seems easy enough; there’s Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, maybe Alice Munro… then the silence starts to gather, and a startling discovery is made: Canadian lit is basically nonexistent in popular culture.
I’ll be honest, the only reason I picked up All My Puny Sorrows was because it was on a reading list for a CanLit course I was taking, and its lecture fell on a week where I actually had time to read the assigned text. Am I ever glad I did. Beautifully written prose, places I actually recognized (ahem, Toronto), and characters I’ll never quite let go of awaited me in this book.
Miriam Toews (pronounced ‘tayves’, not ‘toes’) might be my new favourite Canadian author (sorry Margaret Atwood). All My Puny Sorrows, or AMPS as it’s affectionately dubbed by one of its protagonists, is the semi-autobiographical story of Toews and her sister Marjorie. In fictional terms, it’s the story of Elf, a renowned pianist, whose struggles with depression distance her from her sister Yoli, a recently divorced mother and writer, who wants nothing more than to save her older sister. The book follows the two, along with rest of their family, as they try to navigate the many twists and turns of mental illness.
“It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
As someone who has been in this situation before (in Yoli’s shoes, to be exact), I gained a lot of closure I didn’t even realize I needed from this book. It’s filled with contradictions: it’s hilarious, while at the same time haunting; relatable and distancing; poetic and direct. It’s grief and loss, and life and growth. As I kept reading, I began to realize that you need one to have the other, and in turn, to see everything caught in the middle. After all, black and white mixed together make grey, and it’s in the grey that we find ourselves.
I could gush over this book for hours. I did, in fact, in an essay I wrote for my CanLit class. Point is, read it. Add a Canadian author to your list, you might just get a free drink one day.