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.
Initially, Irma is ignorant of metaphor, and part of her awakening involves a realization that words can transcend their literal meanings. This is something she had long suspected: in the past she would secretly embroider words onto the underside of her skirts – “dangerous words … like lust and agony and Jorge.”
Language, both literal and metaphoric, is at the heart of Irma Voth. Conversation in English, a language forbidden by their father, existed as a kind of illicit exchange between Irma and her elder sister when the family lived in Canada. Once they relocated to Mexico, Irma refused to speak her father’s German dialect, and her Spanish wasn’t strong enough to allow for the expression of genuine emotions (one of the central challenges in her short-lived marriage). In Mexico, there is no one she can converse with in English, the language in which she feels most free, until the film crew arrives. When the director gives her a notebook and a pen, Irma writes, “I love my new notebook. I love the sound my new pen makes on the paper and the thickness of the pages. It terrifies me.”
At first, the director is contrasted with Irma’s father, who declares, “Art is a lie.” In time, however, Irma comes to realize that the director is as much of an authoritarian as her father, and equally given to oppressing the women around him. Having begun to blaze a trail of her own, Irma realizes she cannot leave her teenage sister Aggie open to the violent attention of their father.
So Irma takes flight, as characters in Toews’ novels so often do, living by her wits in order to get to Mexico City with her sisters. The world they discover there is foreign but welcoming, and a much safer place than their cloistered desert home. And it is here the novel falters, suffering from too much uncomplicated kindness: Irma finds a job, room and board, and even childcare for her baby sister. The city proves implausibly generous in its reception of these refugees.
If Irma Voth lacks both the perfect structure and colloquial manner of Toews’ Governor General’s Literary Award–winning A Complicated Kindness, this is partly explained by the fact that the new novel is a different kind of undertaking entirely: one that pushes the limits of plot and language. The deceptive simplicity of the prose makes it difficult at first to see how ambitious the novel actually is. It isn’t flawless, but it is beautiful, strange, and fascinating, and readers wise enough to trust in the author’s sure hand will be rewarded with a novel that takes them someplace altogether unexpected.