Wow. There are so many things to say about this book that I’ll never get them all said! After I read All My Puny Sorrows, I wanted to read more from Miriam Toews, and selected this one, Women Talking, after reading the intriguing reviews. I said All My Puny Sorrows was a jewel of a book. Well, this one is like the Hope Diamond or something. There are so many aspects of it that are just…perfect…that it’s hard to find a place to start.
Well, I do know where to start, which is with the content warning. If you can’t handle books where there is discussion of rape, you’ll need to pass this one by, because the premise of Women Talking hinges around the effects of women of an entire community dealing with the consequences of it. It’s based on a true story, but the dialog and such are imagined.
The protagonists are a group of women in a Mennonite community isolated somewhere in South America, who at first thought they were being attacked by ghosts or demons in the night. The entire plot takes place over two days, as they decide how to deal with the men in their community who actually perpetuated the crimes.
None of these women have been allowed to learn to read or write, and very few of them have ever left their small compound. They have been trained to obey the men, never offer an opinion, and to simply do their jobs (cook, clean, farm, and reproduce).
They hold a series of secret meetings, when the men have gone to try to bail out the rapists, and they ask the one educated person in the community, the teacher, who’s an outcast, to take minutes of their meetings. August is not sure WHY they asked, but he is willing to do it.
Through his notes (and his unexpectedly complex asides and insights into his own history), we learn what a fascinating group of people these women are, gain many insights into the beliefs of their Mennonite community (by the way, NOT like all Mennonite communities…it’s a bit cultish), and see how brilliant, brave, compassionate, and feisty they can be.
When they start planning, reasoning, discussing theology, and supporting each other, you can’t help but be in awe. Toews shows how resilient the human spirit is, and truly draws you into their culture and concerns. There are so many details I’ll never forget, such as conditions they have to deal with all alone, with no real medical care (edema, fainting spells, pregnancy and childbirth, loss of eyesight, loss of limbs, etc.). And there are little things like how one of them manages to be a smoker, or how the two youngest women braid their hair together, or jauntily remove their head coverings and roll their socks down in rebellion.
You eventually see that everyone in the book has suffered, has tenuous connections to sanity, but have strengths, the depths of which they don’t always realize. And to get to that realization you get to enjoy the privilege of Towes’s spare dialogue, her knack for expressing things in ways that people from another “world” would say them, and her true love for marginalized people.
I admired the women in this book deeply. They stuck to their principles as I could only hope to do if I was challenged to fundamentally. And I admired August the note-taker, too, poor tortured soul.
This book affected me as deeply as The Handmaid’s Tale did way back in the 1980s. That means it will stay with me forever. Please read it.