This review of Miriam Toews’ new novel, Irma Voth, will appear in the May issue of Q&Q.
Guest reviewer Kerry Clare writes:
Miriam Toews’ follow-up to 2008’s The Flying Troutmans details its eponymous protagonist’s various attempts to answer the question, How do I behave in this world without following the directions of my father, my husband, or God? Only 19 years old, Irma has been abandoned by all three: by God and her father for marrying outside her faith, and by her husband, Jorge, for failing to be a good wife. When a film crew arrives at Irma’s isolated Mennonite community in Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert, she is offered a glimpse of a different life. Irma’s involvement with the crew sets in motion events that force her to flee with her two younger sisters to Mexico City to evade both their father’s violence and a terrible family secret.
With much of the action having already occurred before the novel even begins, it is difficult at first to find one’s bearings. What kind of person is Jorge? Why did he leave? And why did Irma marry him in the first place? What made her family depart Canada so abruptly six years earlier? In the absence of this background information, the reader’s perspective is curtailed; Toews uses this limited perspective to underscore the way in which Irma is alienated from her own community and, indeed, her own life. As Irma struggles to find her way in the world, so too must the reader struggle to find a way through Toews’ story.
This is not to imply that the struggle is a slog. Toews’ prose has always been fast-paced and readable, and there is a kind of joy in finding oneself unmoored in it. Still, Toews’ protagonist begins the novel with a carefully delimited perspective, so the language is less verbose, more stripped down than was the case in earlier novels. In the early going, Toews employs a minimalist approach, which is fitting for a novel that takes place in the desert. As the story proceeds and Irma’s world grows wider, the novel’s language simultaneously becomes richer.