book review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews




McSweeney’s, 2015


All My Puny Sorrows is a beautiful book that I had almost no emotional reaction to: a fact that sort of surprised me (I had been assured so many times that this book would destroy me) and sort of did not surprise me (this seems reflective of the rut I have been in lately with my reading).  I don’t know if it was a wrong book/wrong time situation or if it’s indicative of something that was actually missing from the book, but I wanted more from this than it gave me, simply put.  Side bar: it does feel a bit cruel writing that, as Miriam Toews lost her own father and sister to suicide, rendering certain elements of this book in an autobiographical light – but it’s obviously not Miriam Toews’ life that I am reviewing.

This was my first experience reading Toews and what I did get from this book was a desire to check out more of her work – I’m interested in Women Talking in particular.  All My Puny Sorrows follows two sisters, Yoli and Elf, growing up in a Mennonite community in Canada.  The narrator, Yoli, chronicles her sister’s frequent suicide attempts, as the two of them attempt to come to terms with the suicide of their father some years prior.

It’s a heartbreaking setup, but where this book excelled for me was more in its intellectual engagement.  The irreconcilable tension between Elf and Yoli is rendered to perfection, summed up in this quote early on in the book: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”  The simplicity and the complexity (both, at once) of their relationship was this book’s strongest asset, and what kept me turning pages without any hesitation even as I had a growing sense that this book just wasn’t the right fit for me.

And a lot of that is ultimately down to its tone.  Dark humor in novels about serious subjects is one of my favorite things, but here it really let me down: the humor felt glib and forced and inorganic.  I never felt like I fully inhabited Yoli’s head and therefore I couldn’t quite follow the radical tonal shifts from melancholic to quirky and back again.  So all in all, a mixed bag, but I’m glad to have read it and I look forward to reading more by Toews, as I said.  More of a 3.5.

You can pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows here on Book Depository.

5 thoughts on “book review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

  1. Interesting! I loved Toews’s A Complicated Kindness when I read it more than ten years ago now, but hated her debut, Summer of My Amazing Luck, and haven’t felt like returning to her since. I keep on meaning to give her another go, but this one doesn’t sound great.


  2. I read the first few pages of Women Talking when there was still a chance of it being longlisted for the WP and didn’t gell with the language and the tone. Seems like this wouldn’t be for me either, which is a shame because I always want to like writers with a backlist who are suddenly everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually read the first few pages of Women Talking ages ago and I really liked the writing style! So, either it was really different here, or I was in a different mood back when I tried WT. And I know what you mean, new faves with huge backlists are the BEST (hi Helen Dunmore).


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