Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews

Review copy courtesty Knopf Canada

A “next generation” of mature Canadian novelists is emerging and Miriam Toews’ name is usually present on any attempted list. Her last two novels (A Complicated Kindness and The Flying Troutmans) were both prize winners — the former won a Governor-General’s award and the latter the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — and also attracted international attention. Both those novels reflected Toews’ Manitoba Mennonite roots and the conflict faced by the children of that faith (no dancing, no drinking, no jewellery, etc.) as they look at the competing attractions of today’s world around them.

Irma Voth returns to that territory of generational conflict, but shifts the geography. The Voth family has fled its Manitoba roots following an incident and, literally, set up camp in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico — for readers not familiar with Mennonite history, its adherents have been fleeing modern regimes for distant “havens” for centuries. In this novel, the family conflict is well-advanced when the novel opens. Irma, at 18, has already left the fold and married Jorge:

The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure. But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo.

Irma’s marriage is not a case of fleeing “to” a better world, but a desperate teenage attempt to get “away” from what she has experienced as a worse one. Like most such attempts, it succeeds in neither goal as Toews makes clear early in the book when Irma tells her mother of her shotgun marriage:

I went into my mother’s bedrom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final.

Irma may have escaped the oppressive family home, but she is now located in a shack just next door. Jorge is rarely there (her father’s description of him is close to dead-on). While her father won’t talk to her and forbids 13-year-old sister Aggie from talking to her, she is expected to continue performing her farm chores in exchange for the residence. She is now doubly isolated and repressed in the near wilderness of northern Mexico.

Hope arrives in the form of a movie company that rents the third dwelling in the Campo owned by her father. Diego, the director of the film, has an established reputation in arty cinema which is reflected in his personality, creative approach and the people whom he attracts to work with him. Irma’s facility with languages (Low German from the family, English from being raised in Manitoba and Spanish from her time in Mexico) gets her a job as translator with the film crew — a significant task since the female lead is a German actress and the movie itself is a version of the “Mennonite” conflict. While her repressive father needs the rent money, that in no way changes his negative attitude towards the movie project and all those involved with it.

Having firmly established those themes of conflict and desperate attempts at escape in two venues, midway through the book Toews extends them even more dramatically into a third, which I’ll leave you to discover in the book itself since it would be a significant spoiler. For those who have read her last two novels, it will not come as a major surprise.

All of that creates the potential for a very interesting novel. I was born and raised in Kitchener, which would rival Manitoba as the centre of Canadian Mennonite country, so that story thread had some personal interest. And Toews (one assumes from personal experience) has an impressive record of fictionalizing the generational conflict that is present in religious families. And the even broader issue of the conflict between rural and urban cultures is one that has much relevance.

The problem with Irma Voth is in the execution. Each of the three storylines requires a cast of supporting characters and there simply is not enough room to adequately develop them. Worse yet, the requirement to supply at least sketches of these characters means that the picture of Irma herself suffers — the author has to spend so much time placing her in new worlds (not to mention locating her upbringing in historical ones) that Irma becomes a vehicle for the plot rather than the centrepiece of it.

The result for this reader was a novel that carried more an impression of “what could have been” rather than “what was actually achieved” — disappointment at what the book might have been took over from what it actually is. I would qualify that, however, by noting that I had a similar reaction to both her previous novels, which obviously wasn’t shared by some others. My suspicion is that Toews’ work lands with much more impact with female readers who can identify with the struggles of her central characters at a level that I simply can’t access. If you read and liked either of her previous novels, it is probably worth giving this one a try — for me, Toews shows all the potential to get to the new Canadian A-list, but has not arrived there just yet.

(Note: If you are not familiar with Toews’ previous books, you can find descriptions of them as well as this one at RandomHouse.ca. She is worth a look.)

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12 Responses to “Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews”

  1. Aths Says:

    I loved Miriam Toews’ Flying Troutmans. So this is something that I’ll be checking out. It’s disappointing when the supporting cast is not fully developed – I just read one recently which disappointed me for the same reason, so I’ll keep that in mind. I haven’t checked out A Complicated Kindness yet.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Aths: A Complicated Kindness is probably my favorite of the three, precisely because it is more contained and allows the author to explore her themes in more depth. I thought this one had more similarities to The Flying Troutmans in that both are what I would call “road” novels — and that genre certainly appeals more to many other readers than it does to me. What all three share is the distinctive Toews’ prose style — she is a very focused, economical writer, a trait that I appreciate. And, to critique my own critique, the problem with what I am calling underdeveloped characters is that so many of them (too many in my opinion) seem to be so intriguing when we first meet them.

  3. christy ann bolisay Says:

    I love Merriam Toews. The first one I read was a complicated kindness. She is a great Canadian writer like Margaret Laurence!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Christy Ann: Why do you think she is as good as Margaret Laurence? I certainly have a lot of respect for Laurence, but it all pre-dates my blogging here. So anything that you have to offer would be welcome.

  5. Robert Wills Says:

    I didn’t like A Complicated Kindness at all. The protagonist simply did not engage my interest. A very unlikeable girl.

  6. Lisa Hill Says:

    I must admit this topic always fascinates me but I’ve been disappointed: The 19th Wife was over-hyped IMO…
    So with Toews you would suggest wait and see how her writing matures, but with interest?

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: You are confusing Mennonites with Mormons with your reference to The 19th Wife. Mennonites have German roots and are known as amazing farmers (I can testify to that from my childhood) and the very idea of polygamy would devastate any good Mennonite. One of the conceits of this novel that Toews does not really develop is that their rejection of “modern” developments (television, cars, etc.) includes photography (which becomes an issue when you are making a movie). The sect has certainly evolved — I’d go so far as to suggest that one of the reasons that Manitoba is known as a quiet, but progressive, province is the high proportion of Mennonite-raised people there.

    As for Toews work, I would look at her now (despite Robert’s dislike of A Complicated Kindness it would be my recommendation). One aspect of her writing that relates to your Australian interests is that her characters are social outcasts — like Australia, early Canada needed people, any kind of people even if they were outcasts elsewhere (hence Mennonites). The consistent thread in the three Toews novels that I have read is her exploration of how the offspring of those outcasts are coping with a modern world. When you add the gender issue in (much as I respect a lot of what Mennonites stand for, gender equality is definitely not on the list) you get some interesting dilemmas.

  8. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hi Kevin, I meant that the whole topic of other people’s religion outside the mainstream usually intrigues me, not any particular sect. I’ve just read a book called Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit which is about life in a Jesuit Seminary and it was fascinating.
    Anyway, my local library has A Complicated Kindness and I’ve just reserved it now so I’ll read it over Easter – thanks for the recommendation!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Sorry, I misunderstood your original comment. Like you, I too find that these “different” religions tend to produce some intriguing fiction — and that comes from someone who is not religious at all.

  10. Lisa Hill Says:

    That’s the thing, isn’t it, Kevin? Reading fiction enables us to ‘get inside the heads of’ people we may otherwise never meet. I’m not religious either, and I live in a country where overt displays of religiosity are mildly frowned upon because religion is a private matter – in contrast to America where, I gather, having some kind of conspicuous religion is the norm, sects of all sorts are common and in some places not going to church on Sundays would be deeply upsetting to the local community. (I had a friend who went on teacher-exchange to a small US town and he was most put out to learn that he was expected to get up on Sundays for worship, instead of enjoying a well-deserved sleep in LOL).
    So books like this are ‘exotic’, for me.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin,

    If you had a similar reaction to the previous novels, what is it that keeps you reading them? Your TBR pile must contain less equivocal authors.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I’d say Canadians are very close to Australians in considering religion a private and personal matter — certainly in the three years we lived in the States church-going was much more conspicuous. In fact, I think I would have liked this novel better if Toews had spent more words on that storyline.

    Max: Toews has enough of a reputation that I do like to follow her. This was not a bad read — just not an exceptional one.

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