I bought All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews with a good friend at the CBC Calgary Reads Book Sale months ago and was happy to have my book club choose this as our Fall book. I missed reading A Complicated Kindness, but now I’m curious because I loved All My Puny Sorrows.
This book follows the life experiences of Yolandi and how she lives with the sorrow of seeing her sister Elfrieda struggle with life. I like the tag line of the review in the Globe and Mail: “a funny novel honouring deep sadness.” That’s exactly it. Honouring deep sadness.
Mental health is something that is part of my everyday life. In the last few years, I’ve had several friends suffer and survive with mental illnesses. It’s so hard to watch the people you love suffer and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. This is why I needed to read Toew’s novel: I needed to acknowledge the sadness of having my friends no longer in my life in the same way. My heart friends, women who have become part of my soul and life, are unwell and it hurts my heart that they are suffering. Yet, we still have memories of past adventures, current check-ins to talk about the frivolity of cat videos, and the hope for future conversations and adventures.
Throughout the novel, Yolandi, our narrator, helps her concert-pianist older-sister through a bout of dark depression and suicide. While in the hospital, we get flashbacks to the girls growing up. Rebelling against the rules of their strict community upbringing. Spraying graffiti and burning buildings. These two girls shared so many secrets and thoughtful moments. Through her thoughts and hopes, we see the pain of seeing a sibling suffer without being able to reach them. Although Yolandi does what she can to support her sister by being present, by listening, and by caring, we still see the deep sorrow of not being able to fully reach another human, reach to their soul and share the pain with them.
Reading this novel has helped me to better understand my friends and my role in loving them while they fight.
Yet it’s not all darkness and sorrow. Toews’ has a great sense of humour and that is what kept me reading the novel. At one point in the novel, she writse about the trials of shaving one’s legs. In a conversation with one of Yolandi’s lovers, she writes their conversation about body hair:
“He jokes in broken English that he is not quite fully evolved and I tell him that I admire him for not burning it or ripping it all away like North Americans who are terrified of hair and fur in general. Body hair is the final frontier in the fight for the liberation of women” (Pg 62).
Toews writes about a subject that is hard to think about: suicide. How is it that we hold on to people who are ill far longer than they are actually present? How do we support and empathize with those closest to us who are suffering?
The greatest gift of this book is the love in the moment. It’s easy to try to solve someone’s problems and seek solutions, It’s easy to seek help for someone and hire professionals. What is hardest in life is to sit and listen. How do we every really know someone else? How do we every make connections if we want others to live what we believe is the best way to live? Being present and listening. Through the fun and the sorrow.