All My Puny Sorrows
by Miriam Toews
This is a story about suicide. It’s about other things, too: family, growing up Mennonite, resilience, grief, and friendship – but mainly, it’s about suicide.
Told in first person, Yolandi, or Yoli for short, tells about growing up in a cloistered Mennonite community in Canada with her parents and her sister, Elfrieda, or Elf as she is known by her loved ones. Elf is a piano prodigy, and at seventeen leaves home to study piano abroad, where she soon becomes a world-renowned classical pianist. As the years go by, she also becomes more and more tortured. Numerous suicide attempts ensue, and we find out at some point in the story that Yoli and Elf’s father committed suicide by kneeling in the path of an oncoming train (this incident is taken straight out of the author’s real life; her father actually did commit suicide in that manner, which she wrote about in her memoir, Swing Low: A Life, which I have not read).
Much of the story takes place in the psych ward of the hospital in which Elf ends up after her various suicide attempts. There, Yoli keeps a devoted vigil over her beloved sister, willing her to want to live. But alas, Elf is determined to die. Now in her late forties, she is weary of life. The story takes a turn when Elf begs Yoli to help her die. At first, Yoli is predictably horrified by the idea, but gradually she begins to wonder if it wouldn’t in fact be an act of love to help her sister gain the peaceful oblivion she so desperately wants.
While all of this is going on, there are other family dramas taking place. Yoli is in the middle of a divorce, she’s sleeping around a bit to comfort herself, her teenage daughter is giving her a run for her money, Elf’s husband needs propping up, Elf and Yoli’s aging mother and their aunt are suffering health problems – and, oh yeah, we find out that a cousin also committed suicide a number of years back.
The story is told with a fair amount of humor, but it still feels pretty heavy. I wanted very much to feel like I could root for Elf’s autonomy and her right to die with dignity, and I applaud Miriam Toews for tackling such a taboo. However, I couldn’t shake a feeling of anger at Elf’s selfishness.
It’s not that I think suicide is necessarily a selfish act. I understand that it’s complicated, and that mental illness is often complicated. I do believe in a person’s right to autonomy over his or her own life and right to die, but what makes this story difficult is the profound pain Elf causes her family by her numerous half-assed – maybe that’s a bit harsh; let’s say unsuccessful – attempts to end her life. I kept thinking that if someone truly, truly wanted to end their life, they would find a method by which to carry it out that would be quick and effective. More than that, though, is how Elfrieda drags Yoli into it by imploring her to help her kill herself. She doesn’t want to die alone, so she places this immense burden on her sister by making her feel tormented by guilt and a sense of duty to end her sister’s suffering.
Toews delivers a well-written story about a difficult topic, but in the end, it’s not a story I cared for.