Miriam Toews has this way of writing lines that are so beautiful that sometimes I have to close her books for a moment just to marvel at them. All My Puny Sorrows is a book that is full of such moments; alternating equally between being eloquently wise, wickedly funny and jaggedly heartbreaking.
In every one of her novels Toews balances on the delicate line between tragedy and comedy. That is what makes her novels so real and relatable, a big salad bowl full of happy and sad ingredients. Often the relationships the novels explore are relationships within families and Toews’s portrayal never comes across false. The sadness doesn’t come across as melodrama, the happiness isn’t forced.
All My Puny Sorrows is the story of a family- two sisters and their parents cocooned in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Elf is the loud, romantic non-conformist who blatantly rejects the church with her piano playing. Yoli is clearly in awe of her older sister, who she watches carefully and with clear adoration. Thirty or so years later, Elf is a world-famous pianist with a devoted live-in partner, while Yoli is divorced, unemployed and raising two teenagers alone. Despite that, Elf has a tendency toward increasingly violent attempted suicides. After Elf’s latest in a series of life-long suicide attempts, Yoli attempts to help save her sister and fights against her own resentment and pain.
It isn’t an easy read. The honest examination of a family coping with a suicidal relative is heavy, painful stuff. Still, Yoli is a resourceful, funny character and the warmth of Toews’ writing style and the deep connection between the sisters kept me reading even through the darker moments. Not only that, but I loved every character including the minor ones – texts to Yoli from her teens were a comedic highlight. The novel should be grim, but it’s not- I finished it feeling genuinely uplifted. That’s life, it reminded me, all the good and bad, the hilarious and absolutely terrible. And beyond it all, what we’re left with are the people who love us and for however long they can, they help us get through.