By Miriam Toews
The women of a Mennonite colony come together to discuss leaving their colony after discovering that they’ve been sexually abused by the men in their colony.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews is about a group of Mennonite women who gather together to discuss what they should do in response to their discovery that they have all been sexually abused; the book is based off of real events.
The women of the Mennonite Molotschna colony gather together over the course of a few days to discuss how they should deal with their joint trauma. Over the course of two years, they and the other women and girls of their colony, have been continuously violated, in the night, by what they first believed to be demons, as punishment for their sins. When they finally learn that it is in fact the men of the colony who have been abusing them, they decide to come together to find a solution that will protect them and their daughters from further harm.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bloomsbury USA through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Through the format of meeting minutes, Toews tells the story of these women who have suffered from sexual abuse, and possibly at the hands of direct relatives. This book delves deeply into faith, religion, right and wrong, forgiveness, and loyalty. The women hold what is essentially a philosophical discussion about what actions they can take and whether such actions will cause them to either be excommunicated from their faith and unable to attain entrance into heaven or sacrifice their safety and the safety of their children.
This novel is made up of many voices and each woman has something new to add to the discussion. Much of it is centered on forgiveness. In their faith, if the women do not forgive the men for what they have done, then they cannot continue to be Mennonite and remain in the colony, and ultimately get to go to heaven. But the dilemma they have is whether they can forgive, or if they should forgive what has been done to them – or, if they do forgive, will they really mean it? I was fascinated by the discussion that these women produced and their struggles to adhere to their faith, that same faith that is being preached and interpreted by men (and they wonder if they can even trust this interpretation, after what has happened to them). In the end, though the consensus does not reach all the women of the colony, what is achieved by their secret meetings is truly something powerful and moving.
I was continually blown away by how practical these women are in the face of what they have suffered and how they balance that with their continued adherence to their faith. This book provides a strong message about the support system of women, women who have gone through similar trauma and how they each handle this differently. This book is coming out during a growing women’s movement (though it was written before #metoo first emerged) and I feel that it has a deep resonance with current events.
Literary Value: 3/5
While I was absolutely blown away by the content of this book, I felt that the writing did not match this. Toews’ “minutes” format as the frame for the story is very organic, written down by August, the only male in attendance to these meetings (allowed there because none of the women can read or write). This style made it difficult to follow the flow of the conversation, keep track of who is talking, and, overall, felt very cluttered. August’s own personal asides would slip in and muddy the discussion with outside information about his own personal feelings, anecdotes, or responses to what the women were saying.
In addition to my dislike of the format, I felt that Toews’ writing style was overly flowery. Often times, I couldn’t quite grasp what she was getting at because the writing would turn very poetic and metaphorical, while I felt it really should remain grounded in the concrete because it is reflecting a discussion. In this way, the writing felt out of place and unnecessarily elevated, and I feel that the average reader will find it difficult to engage with (I know I did!).
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
With stories like this one, entertainment can really only mean “did it capture my attention, was it riveting, did I find myself glued to the page?” The answer is definitely yes, but with a caveat. The subject matter, itself, is very powerful. The fact that this story emerges from actual fact, that this event did occur, is enough to capture my full attention. I was deeply concerned and invested in the outcome of this story and the fates of these women. The only but that I have to add is that it was not told in a very “entertaining” way.
Because of the format of the story, and the fact that the language would get overly flowery at times, I felt like it was difficult for me to differentiate each of the women, to get a good grasp on who was sharing what, and this made me frustrated. The names of many of the women are very similar, so it can be easy to get the mixed up, especially since none of the women ever develop a unique voice, as everything is told, minutes-style, in Augusts’ writing. And because it is told this way, often the story feels repetitive. Over the course of each successive day, the women tread and retread similar topics, making the story feel a bit repetitive, which made it less captivating, which is why I couldn’t give this category a higher rating.
Cover Art Rating: 4/5
I love the cover. When I was first looking for books to read, I came across this one and I was instantly drawn to the cover. I love the simplicity of it, the minimal colors, and I feel that its starkness reflects the characters in the book very well. The repeated figure also parallels the similarities of the women, many of whom are sisters, or mothers and daughters. The fact that the women’s’ faces are just slivers also reflects how the women in the colony are basically treated as second-class citizens, their true selves are so deeply hidden because they must adhere to so many rules, must cover themselves just so, must be obedient. This all feels represented by just that hint of face (and I’m just glad I don’t see a full face, because I don’t like full faces on covers).
The title is also very boldly displayed and since the title sums up in a nutshell what this book is about, the heart of the novel is, therefore, on display. It’s also just a beautiful image.
Overall Rating: 3.75/5
On Goodreads, I would bump this up to 4/5 because I feel it deserves that extra bit that can’t be represented by a half star in their scoring system.
I have to say, this book was just as powerful as I thought it would be. It’s full of deep, thoughtful discussion and the voices of each of the women ring true. It’s a powerful story and Toews does a brilliant job of processing this story and interpreting it into fascinating dialogue. The women are being tested in their faith, in their loyalty, in the very orientation of their place in their colony. If you love philosophical discussion, empowering women’s stories, and realistic fiction, this book melds all of these into a compelling story that will keep you invested. While the writing is, at times, too flowery and abstract, Toews still keeps it grounded in the women’s words, in what they are feeling/thinking/processing. This book, called Women Talking is made up of just that, women talking. To each other, to their children, to August, their minutes keeper. It is women’s’ voices that make up the fabric of this novel and that is by and large what makes it so compelling. For once, the women in this colony are taking control of their future and it is a powerful thing.
If nothing else, this book feels deeply rooted in the #metoo movement, and therefore should draw significant attention. It’s worth giving it a read.
Open discussion below!
Let me know what you think! If you’ve read Women Talking, share your thoughts! Have you read Miriam Toews’ work before? Do you think you’ll try reading this newest work from her? Are you going to pass on this one? Tell me all about it in the comments. And, as always, keep up the reading!