All My Puny Sorrows

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, US publication), 2015
  • In 43 words or less: Sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi are closer than close. Now adults, Elf is a renowned pianist and Yoli a struggling mother and writer. Their Mennonite family and Elf’s mental illness overtake their lives. Funny and heartbreaking, this well-written novel isn’t for everyone.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Canada
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Toews gives a glimpse into a less-than-traditional Mennonite family and the forces that shape it. Warning: Themes related to mental illness, living with a loved one with mental illness.

Miriam Toews is an acclaimed writer in Canada and less known south of the border. For more than two decades she has been amassing honors for her writing which includes six novels, the latest being All My Puny Sorrows. It either won or was shortlisted for most of the major Canadian fiction prizes upon its publication.

All My Puny Sorrows draws upon Toews’ family life as a child of an unconventional Mennonite family in Manitoba. Being unfamiliar with this community, her descriptions of communal norms and the choices her family made that set them apart were particularly interesting. The relationship of Elfrieda and Yolandi brought to mind the Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.” Elf is a brilliant concert pianist who feels music, poetry and all aspects of life deeply and darkly. Yolandi, the younger sister, is her foil and protector, dropping everything to cushion Elf from harm.

Yoli hasn’t attended to her own needs as carefully. Her romantic relationships have failed, though her two children seem surprisingly well adjusted. A writer, she earns a meager living writing children’s novels she dislikes and is regularly a step away from financial ruin. Fortunate to have a friend who steps in when she can, Yoli’s first priority remains Elf and keeping her safe.

I regularly encourage people to visit independent bookstores when traveling and to buy local authors as a way to bring the trip back home.  A kind friend gave me All My Puny Sorrows after a visit to Toronto. While the book is beautifully written, the realism Miriam Toews brings to Yoli and Elf is so personal and painful I read it in small bites. Despite the darkness, there is a lot of humor and the story is filled with familial love across three generations. Even though there is little difference between American and Canadian English, there is something distinctly Canadian beyond the locations that are periodically mentioned.

Miriam Toews is a survivor of familial suicide and has written a nonfiction book about her father and his suicide. Her experiences clearly have informed her fiction. For this reason, prospective readers may want to avoid this book if it hits too close to home or is otherwise too disturbing.