Early in All My Puny Sorrows the delightfully brash narrator, Yoli, describes Winnipeg, the setting for much of this beautiful novel, with a bit of tongue in cheek as “a dark and fecund corner of the world, this confluence of muddy waters, one that begs the question of hey, how do we set words to life’s tragic score?” It’s a quick and seemingly playful question, but it resonates throughout the book, announcing most prominently Yoli’s own challenge in understanding her sister Elf’s struggle with mental illness.
This challenge grows out of Yoli’s love for Elf first and foremost, but it is fuelled by her confusion, too. If I love my sister, Yoli asks herself throughout the novel, and she is weary of life—that is, she seems unable to find “delivery from the torment of the days”—what should I do? I love her, and she loves me, so how can she want to end her life? She is asking me to help her because she’s afraid to die alone, but what does it mean to help her? What does it mean to love her?
Miriam Toews takes this complex and demanding situation and makes it tender and humorous, as only she can. I don’t mean that she makes light of sadness or pain at the expense of a caper or a joke, but rather that she weaves the heartrending and comical of daily life with an insight and lightness that bring her characters to life and raise potentially grand questions in the midst of everyday experiences. The rich and powerful story that results is filled with humanity and compassion that jump from the page because they are recognizable.
Take the moment when Yoli rushes to the hospital after visiting hours and sneaks into bed with Elf. Yoli curls up to her, and times her breathing with Elf, as if to protect her or to take strength and direction from her, or maybe both. This touching moment between these 40-plus-year-old sisters is not fixed in sadness, because in its lead-up we have followed Yoli as she rides to the hospital and flings her dad’s old red CCM three-speed bike “onto the grass next to the front doors of the Palaveri ward like I was a kid all over again and running late for the six p.m. start of The Wonderful World of Disney.”
How different the scene in the hospital room would feel if Yoli were crying when she arrived, or if she unhappily walked to the hospital, thinking about her own worries, or if she carefully leaned the bicycle against a tree. Moreover, how does the Disney reference affect us? How many of us remember our greatest fear or worry being that we might miss the beginning of a TV show? Yoli’s love and respect for Elf—so beautifully rendered in the hospital bed scene—are in no way reduced by her riding the old CCM, or by her flinging it onto the grass, or by her recalling the importance of rushing home for Disney. But these genuine and perhaps unexpected expressions are all the more powerful for being likely.
Run out and get this book.