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All My Puny Sorrows Reviewed

Loyal book club member Janine has come to every meeting since we kicked it off back in June 2021 (pic below). As she is soon moving away and won't be able to attend anymore, we thought it only right that she got to pick a book before leaving. The title she chose was All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

In a nutshell, this book centres around Yoli and Elf, two sisters. Elf is an accomplished concert pianist with a devoted husband and enigmatic mystique that earns her universal admiration. By contrast, Yoli has two children by different fathers, no stable work and is going through a divorce, yet it is her older sister Elf who is in hospital after multiple attempts to take her own life.

What makes this book so unique is the combination of devastating tragedy and often absurdist (or just silly) humour. Jumbling thought and speech allows Toews to communicate a vivid portrayal of Yoli's thoughts:

"I heard the trumpets sounds the end of my mom's game and the slap of her laptop closing. How are you, sweetheart? she asked. What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter. Not much, I said, got the stuff from the car. Doing some work."

It also makes unclear how accurate the narrator is, but gives the sense that we are experiencing a totally honest portrayal of Yoli's world. The book is made up of fragmented scenes with very varied paces, some lengthier than others but showing just one conversation between the sisters, who are searingly honest with each other, as well as sometimes flippant and dismissive. Ultimately, AMPS reads as an attempt to process tragic events that we know from Toews' biography really happened. She sometimes falls into narrativising her older sister's life and character in a way that makes her ultimate death seem inevitable, but she is also self-contradictory and constantly seeking reassurance that cannot be found. The sisters were raised in a strict Mennonite community which failed to provide them with satisfactory answers to the point of life. However, Yoli almost envies their mother's unwavering faith, which provides solace and comfort. Again, Toews does not push an agenda, rather opens up more lines of questioning about truth, delusion and the point of life.

This lack of resolution means AMPS raises huge questions in a way we compared to previous book club pick Breasts and Eggs, because neither book seems to exist as the argumentation for a certain standpoint, but rather as a nexus for reflection about morality. In B and E one of Kawakami's characters rants about how cruel it is to bring babies into a world without their consent. In AMPS Elf begs Yoli to take her to Switzerland so that she can end her life with dignity. Questions about how we understand mental versus physical suffering arise, as do questions of responsibility: does Elf have a duty to keep living for the benefit of those around her? Does Yoli owe it to her sister to help her end her suffering? Should the hospital keep Elf alive in conditions so bleak hers barely constitutes a life anymore? Will Elf always feel this way - does she see the world and its failings in a more lucid way? Is her condition hereditary, inherited trauma, simply her disposition? These are all explored yet left inconclusive.

I had to keep putting the book down because it was upsetting me too much. It so accurately conveys the heartbreak, family relationships and oscillations of emotion that come with someone close to you struggling with depression. The borderline cliché moments where an anecdote serves as a metaphor for the dynamic of Elf leaving Yoli or wanting to end her life are undercut by humour. Elf even says flat out that a story Yoli is telling her sounds suspiciously like a parable with the goal of teaching her some abstract reason to live.

There were far more themes raised and explored, I urge you to read this book yourself!


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