In ‘Women Talking,’ Miriam Toews Ponders Punishment and Justice After Horrifying Crimes

They have been referred to as the “ghost rapes.” In 2005, Mennonite girls residing in a secluded colony in Bolivia reported waking up bleeding, with soiled fingerprints on their our bodies and fraying rope round their wrists. The elders dismissed their complaints or blamed them on “wild female imagination” — till it was found that males from the neighborhood had been creeping via home windows at evening, sedating entire households with bovine anesthetic and raping the ladies. At least 300 feminine members of the colony had been attacked, from toddlers to grandmothers. When the eight culprits have been placed on trial, in 2011, the ladies have been forbidden to testify; their fathers and husbands spoke towards the defendants as an alternative.

“I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women,” the Canadian novelist Miriam Toews has mentioned. “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.” Toews was additionally raised within the sect — “rigged for compliance,” she has put it — and is descended from the identical Mennonite group because the colonists in Bolivia. Her celebrated novels are haunted by her upbringing, however she has by no means written with such heartbreak, or taken such certain intention at fundamentalism and its hypocrisies, as she does in her new guide, “Women Talking.”

[ Read our profile of Miriam Toews. ]

The novel is ready within the aftermath of the crimes. The males have left for the town, to lift and publish bail for his or her brothers. Eight girls from two households collect in a hayloft. Forgiveness is dictated by the faith; the ladies know they need to absolve the boys or face expulsion, even damnation. They have two days to decide for the feminine members of the neighborhood. Should they keep and forgive? Unfathomable; a Three-year-old was raped and contaminated with venereal illness, an previous girl so savagely attacked her enamel crumbled. Stay and battle — however with what sources? Leave? Impossible; they can not learn, they possess no maps and they can not consider abandoning their sons. The girls consolation and snipe at each other. One girl, impregnated in an assault and beset by morning illness, retains vomiting right into a bucket. They smoke, sing hymns collectively and weep.

Did I point out the guide is humorous? Wickedly so, with Toews’s model of seditious wit. Angela Carter wrote that Grace Paley’s girls have been product of “flexible steel”; your common Toews character is equal elements Silly String. In her novel “A Complicated Kindness,” one units her bonnet on hearth whereas smoking a cigarette and needs to be dunked in a water barrel. In “All My Puny Sorrows,” a girl giving a eulogy is interrupted by her toddler, who opens the urn and scoops the ashes into his mouth.

Many of Toews’s books are steeped in household grief. “Swing Low” is a memoir told in the voice of her father, who killed himself in 1998, stepping in front of a train; her novel “All My Puny Sorrows” is based, in part, on the story of her older sister, who killed herself in the same way 12 years later. But (somehow) these stories are delivered with a mouthful of ash and a lopsided grin, a stubborn sense of the absurd that recalls Philip Larkin and Lorrie Moore and feels like proof of life.

“My father died beside trees on iron rails,” Toews wrote in “All My Puny Sorrows.” “He had 77 dollars on him at the time and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.”

Miriam Toews, whose latest novel, “Women Talking,” was inspired by a series of brutal attacks in a Mennonite community.CreditArden Wray for The New York Times

The women in the book (named after Toews’s family members) do not relate the story; a man does, one of literature’s more reluctant narrators. He introduces himself in a paroxysm of apology: “My name is August Epp — irrelevant for all purposes, other than that I’ve been appointed the minute-taker for the women’s meetings because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves.” He sits listening, taking notes as furiously as he can, his eyes filling with tears.

August is a man in love. His family was expelled from the community long ago (his father was discovered teaching the girls to read). He has returned for a woman — Ona, considered a spinster and made pregnant by a rape. Along with her sisters, Ona has been raised to be silent and submissive — like animals, the women themselves note, as they begin to question everything in the hayloft. Is coerced forgiveness genuine forgiveness? How can it be blasphemous to protect their children? “By staying in Molotschna,” one argues, “we women would be betraying the central tenet of the Mennonite faith, which is pacifism, because by staying we would knowingly be placing ourselves in a direct collision course with violence, perpetrated by us or against us. We would be inviting harm. We would be in a state of war.”

It is, August thinks, “the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.”

Their fractious, fumbling conversations take them from trauma to the foundations of democracy and the nature of knowledge as they discuss how to form a new society, salvage their religion and live with their pasts: “When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”

One wishes, at times, that the voices were more individuated. The book recalls “12 Angry Men,” with its characters in a closed room fighting to come to one decision, but few of the women emerge distinctly enough for there to be any drama in their evolution. It’s the chorus that interests Toews, not character, the etiology of violence and the structures — not merely the personalities — that perpetuate it.

The ethical questions the women quarrel over feel strikingly contemporary: What are the differences between punishment and justice? How do we define rehabilitation; how do we enforce accountability? (To see these questions explored with such complexity and curiosity, with such open grief and that rogue Toews humor, makes me long for more novels reckoning with #MeToo and fewer op-eds.)

In her foreword, Toews writes that the book is “an act of female imagination,” echoing the phrase used by the elders in the Bolivian colony to dismiss the reports of the raped women. She’s not merely reclaiming the phrase but gesturing at something greater. Female imagination can produce a novel, but it has also always been an engine of migration — that insistence that another world, another life must be possible even if for some future, longed-for generation.

Up in the hayloft, Ona asks the women if they know about the yearly sojourn of butterflies and dragonflies. It takes so long, it is “often only the grandchildren who arrive at the intended destination.”

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