Women Talking by Miriam Toews

On the front cover, the coloured letters spell “love”.

I like most of the books I read, but I especially appreciate unique ways of telling stories.

Miriam Toews wanted to write about the events that happened in the  Manitoba Colony of Bolivia.

Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada, many girls and women would wake in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild female imagination.

Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. In 2011, these men were convicted in a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences. In 2013, while the convicted men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults and other sexual abuses were continuing to take place in the colony.

“Women Talking” is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.

Instead of writing a straight-forward fictional account of the story, Toews writes about the ‘after’. What happens to the women next? If the women got together to discuss this situation, what would they say? Where and how would their opinions differ?

The women in the novel are trying to decide what to do now that they know the truth of what’s happened, and what their men are capable of. They determine that they have three options: 1) Do Nothing, 2) Stay and Fight, or 3) Leave.

Because it’s not possible for all the women to be part of the meeting (life must go on as usual, and the men must not know about the meetings), representatives from two families have been chosen to meet and discuss the options, while the others cover for them. (Except for the women who have chosen to “do nothing”.)

One of the big concerns of the women is forgiveness. If they are not granted forgiveness by the men for lying about their secret meetings and disobeying their husbands, then they believe they will not be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Perhaps, says Greta, there will be other elders or men of God that will be able to forgive our sins, individuals we have not yet met.

At this, Salome erupts… We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God, she shouts, for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God He will forgive us Himself. If God is a vengeful God then He has created us in His image. If God is omnipotent then why has He not protected the women and girls of Molotschna? If God, in the book of Matthew, according to Peters, our wise bishop, asks: Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, then mustn’t we consider it a hindrance when our children are attacked?

The bulk of the novel is made up of these discussions between the women. The representatives include three generations of women from each family – the youngest are 16. At the beginning, some lean heavily toward staying and fighting, while others lean more toward leaving. They hash out the pros and cons of each, recognizing that both options have challenges. As these things usually go, the women tend to talk in circles, coming back to the same concerns, the same questions and arguments. It helps them to zero in on what is important to them – what it is that they want to achieve – 1) protect the children, 2) keep their faith, and 3) be able to think.

We are women without a voice… We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are.

None of us have ever asked the men for anything… Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to go easy on the small yearlings or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body.

On the back cover, the coloured letters spell “anger”.

The author adds another layer to the story by choosing to make the narrator of the story a man, August Epp. August left the colony years ago with his parents, and has recently come back to it on his own. Primarily because of Ona, one of the women at the meetings. Because the women can’t read or write, Ona has asked August to take the minutes of their meetings. In addition to relaying the minutes of the meeting to us, the readers, he also adds his own observations of the women, and tidbits of information about some of the things that have gone on, or are going on, in the colony.

She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.

Although I didn’t find Women Talking as emotional and spellbinding as All My Puny Sorrows, I found it intensely interesting. It filled me with curiosity and concern for the Mennonite women in Bolivia as well as in any other patriarchal, isolated community.

How would you vote if you were one of the women living in the colony: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?


Further Reading:

I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them.

An interview with Miriam Toews in The Guardian: ““I’ve spent a lot of time with Mennonite women, and there’s a certain kind of natural, inherent, storytelling capacity,” says Toews. “Not to the point where they’re being disobedient. They know their roles and they play them. But when they get together, there’s a lot of laughter and their own kind of coded, rebellious exchange. I wanted to get that into the book.””

Listen to an interview with Miriam Toews on CBC Radio.

Review in The Star: “To read this intelligent, slow-burner of a novel, with its indelible characters and finely calibrated emotionality, is to realize how rarely women are shown, in novels or film, debating anything except relationships. The trope of female hysteria versus male rationality is also subverted: here, logic is the prime tool the women can wield against the men’s deepest animal urges.

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32 thoughts on “Women Talking by Miriam Toews

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    I read the Guardian interview with her. It’s such a horrifying story! I’m intrigued that she decided to tell it as fiction rather than nonfiction; she’s used both to write about heavy subjects like suicide in the past. Do you think a novel was the most effective way to draw attention to the situation?

    • Naomi says:

      In my opinion, yes! Not only do we find out what happened (like you would in NF), but we get to see it from the point of view of the women – women that we get to know in the book. They are no longer just numbers or names on a list of victims. They have personalities. They’re angry, sad, caring, loyal, funny, and intelligent.

  2. Grab the Lapels says:

    This review was hard to read because the situation is a gross violation on so many levels. Then, they have to worry about their souls on top of everything. Actually, these rapists make me feel very “bed burning” about it. Even having a male narrator makes me mad.

    • Naomi says:

      That part really made me sad – the fact that they have to worry about disobeying and not being forgiven when they are so clearly, heart-breakingly, victims.
      I felt okay with the male narrator. It was nice to know there were still men around they could trust.

      • Naomi says:

        No, it still felt it was the women’s story. But he added in things like their body language and facial expressions, and he told us about any interruptions to the meetings by other community members (and then gave us a little backstory on them as well). Is that more clear? I would pull out a quote for you, but the book has gone back to the library!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        No, you were clear in your review for sure! I’m just trying to comprehend where the author was coming from with this idea. I get it now, but I’m still hesitant about the choice. A woman could have kept meeting minutes.

      • Naomi says:

        In one of the interviews I linked to (or both) Toews goes into more detail about her choice to have August take the minutes and be the narrator of the story. There’s more to it for sure!
        One reason is that none of the women are literate. But, really, when you think about it, they don’t really need minutes to be taken at all. Ona had her own reasons for giving August the task.

  3. madamebibilophile says:

    I’m always a bit uncertain about fictionalising events in living memory, especially when told by someone not in the community, but it sounds like this was sensitively done. And it’s getting the story out there – I hadn’t heard about it, and it’s truly horrifying.

    • Naomi says:

      In my opinion, it’s well done. And the author is from a Mennonite community herself, so she knows how things work, and she feels for the community.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve been really curious about this book, it’s such a fascinating premise for a work of fiction. I liked your review-and I personally would have NEVER clued into the whole words coloured on the back page thing-good on ya!

    Although it seems strange that the victims were worried about their souls in a religious context, I think that’s unfortunately very common in some religions. Like that book I reviewed a few months ago about the Yazidi women being held as sex slaves-when they finally escaped, they were worried their families would disown them, because in their religion it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage (even rape!!!). It seems so backward to us, but I’m not a religious person so I can’t really understand it…

  5. The Paperback Princess says:

    I didn’t know much about what this book was about and now I can just say whoa. That sounds intense. I’m not sure that I’m in the headspace to read this one any time soon! I had no idea about that community but that’s truly heinous. I see that a number of commenters mentioned that it gave them pause that she chose to have a male character as the narrator. I see why it was done but I also question it.
    I think I’m probably good with just reading your review about it for now. An excellent one, as ever.

  6. susan says:

    If you’re asking, I think the women involved should take their children and leave. If abuse is still going on even when those convicted are in jail — then it’s not a healthy or safe place to stay. I realize they might not have anything on the outside of their colony to go to …. but perhaps they can seek help from those who have left or organizations etc. The patriarchal set-up of the place makes me wince. Even the focus on the forgiveness …makes me uncomfortable. As if the onus is on them to make it right etc.

    • Naomi says:

      That would be my feeling as well. But I can also understand their hesitation to leave everything they know and travel to who-knows-where. They don’t even know where they are in relation to anything else, and they don’t have a map. I can’t imagine.

  7. B Lostinacoulee says:

    I was looking at this one at Chapters this morning and almost bought it. Hmm, I meant to need to go back now! Fantastic review!

  8. buriedinprint says:

    I think my answer to your question about what I would imagine doing in that situation would change depending on the age I was at and what other experiences I’d had by that age.

    But if these women only knew a small community, a tiny corner of the broader world, I can see where the idea of staying and fighting/or simply accepting and moving on might have seemed like the only viable options.

    The new Granta Mag had an excerpt of this so I had a peek at the story only, and I appreciate your take on things to add to my understanding of what to expect. I know that if I’d read the description of All My Puny Sorrows before I read it, I’d’ve thought the book was going to be too hard, too dark, and it was just an amazing reading experience, so I can see how she would have applied those skills in this situation too. But I wonder: what next? Darker and darker…

    • Naomi says:

      Good question… what next? I can picture her already digging through the news for some more material.
      But, you’re right, it’s not as hard to read as it sounds!

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