Best-selling author Miriam Toews is not known for breezy reads. Her books ask big questions and her latest novel, “All My Puny Sorrows” is no exception. In the book, Yolandi, a divorced mom of two, rushes to her sister Elfrieda’s bedside when she is hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The sisters have already lost their father to suicide and Elfrieda, who is a famous pianist, has her mind made up to be successful as well. The question is, will Yolandi help her sister die, or will Elfrieda die alone?
Art imitating life
The book strongly mirrors Toews’s own life: her father and sister both committed suicide. “After my sister died, I didn’t write anything for two years. I was grieving in every respect,” Toews says. “But as time passed, it became clear to me that I would have to write about this, because that’s what I do; I take the events in my life and fictionalize them.”
What would you do?
Besides addressing dark themes like suicide, depression and mental illness, Toews says at its heart, the book is about survival, forgiveness and love. “What do you do when someone you love wants to die? And how do you survive that kind of catastrophic loss?” she questions aloud.
It’s hard for most people to comprehend something as tragic as suicide, but Toews hopes her book will help people see that the psychic pain suicidal people feel is just as real as physical pain. “If we can come to that understanding, we might be less severe and less resistant to talking about suicide,” she says. Towes says writing about the book helped her understand suicide more and let go of some of the bitterness, anger of guilt she was feeling. “You can’t live with those emotions, or it will destroy you,” she says.
A second goodbye
Finishing the book is bittersweet for the reader after going on such an intense journey with the characters, and for Toews, finishing writing it was bittersweet as well. “Writing it was a way of keeping my sister alive, so coming to the end of that meant another grieving process in a way,” she says. But it’s perhaps through Toews’s great loss that she can show others how to live.