Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All My Puny Sorrows

When I was reading this book I felt that it had to be autobiographical.  Then I finished it, googled the author and found that while this book is listed as a novel, it is very close to, or indeed, a memoir as events in the book are identical to events in the author's life.

The fact that the story is in large part real makes this book even more sad than it would be if it was pure fiction.  All My Puny Sorrows is beautifully and cleverly written.  But it is so sad that I am not sure I can recommend it.

The book is about two sisters who were brought up in a Mennonite community near Winnipeg.  One of the sisters is a brilliant pianist.  The narrator, the other sister, is an author. The story includes episodes from the sisters' early family life with their loving parents.  Much of the "novel" takes place when the sisters are in their forties, but there are reflections about childhood throughout.

All My Puny Sorrows is beyond sad.  A message in the book is that given the emotional blows that this family endures, most of the sorrows that weigh us down are relatively puny. I'm not sure it works that way and I will write more fully about this later in the blog.

If you think you might want to read the book despite how sad it will likely make you feel, then do not read the next paragraph.

One of the two sisters is a brilliant pianist.  The narrator, the other sister, is an author.  (Miriam Toews, the author, grew up with her sister in a Mennonite community near Winnipeg. Her sister was a concert pianist).  A central character in the novel is the sisters' father, a very good man.  He is also a depressed man who commits suicide by sitting on the train tracks one day.  (Miriam Toews's father killed himself by sitting on the train tracks).  The central character in the novel is the narrator's sister.  She, like her dad, is also very depressed and the novel focuses on  how the family, already bereft of a father because of his suicide, attempts to address the sister's suicidal tendencies.  It doesn't help. She, like her father, sits on the railroad tracks and commits suicide. (Miriam Toews's sister in real life committed suicide, like her father, by sitting on the railroad tracks).  Throw in an aunt--whose own daughter had previously committed suicide. The aunt comes to Winnipeg in an attempt to comfort her suicidal niece. During her visit, doctors discover that the aunt needs to have emergency open heart surgery.  She has the surgery. She dies after the surgery.  The book is just one barrel of laughs.

But, despite this, it is a valuable read.  The narrator describes the events vividly and includes her own missteps.  She, her children, her mother, her friends are fully drawn, very real, and earn the reader's sympathy.  Some scenes are brilliantly described, even if maybe a little heavy on the metaphors. It will be a while before I forget the part when the mother, sister, and sister's daughter try to put up a Christmas tree.

It is true that compared to this family all our sorrows are puny, but no matter how bad someone else has it, our relatively puny sorrows do not feel puny to us.  All of our sorrows will be a burden even if we know of others who have it worse.  My favorite character in the "novel" is the mother. She is a survivor.  She loses her husband, daughter, niece, and sister and still attempts to find the light.

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