“Irma Voth” by Miriam Toews

Irma VothI enjoyed this tale of a young Mennonite girl marooned on a claustrophobic family compound in rural Mexico. At 19 she has already been through a lot, marrying a non-Mennonite Mexican guy called Jorge and getting ostracised by her family as a result, then being abandoned by Jorge. That’s before the novel even begins. As it progresses, she gets involved with a film crew who have rented the neighbouring house to shoot a movie, steals and sells drugs, and runs away to Mexico City with her younger sister Aggie and newborn baby sister Ximena.

In some ways it’s a very familiar tale of a young girl rebelling against a repressive, old-fashioned religious community. The father, especially, was very reminiscent of other crazy authoritarian fathers, for example the missionary father in Poisonwood Bible. Why are fathers with strong religious beliefs so often portrayed in fiction as crazy and authoritarian? It seems a little unfair. Admittedly I don’t have too much experience of extremely religious father figures, but I’m sure they’re not all crazy and authoritarian.

In any case, the slightly familiar taste of the story was counter-balanced by the freshness of the language. Virtually every description, even of mundane events and sights, is beautiful and evocative. The dialogue, too, is often sharp and witty, particularly when the two sisters Irma and Aggie are sparring. The dialogue often takes quite an argumentative form, but with a strong undercurrent of tenderness. The depiction of the relationship between the sisters relies heavily on dialogue, because the first-person narrative by the young, inexperienced Irma does not contain a whole lot of mature reflection. So the dialogue has to be very strong, and it is. The relationship between the sisters, on which so much in the novel depends, is strongly drawn and utterly convincing.

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There’s a big secret in the family, which I won’t reveal here. Again it’s a slightly familiar theme, but it was handled well, and gave some extra resonance to the ending. The main interest for me, though, was in the early farm/movie scenes, the flight to Mexico City and the haphazard floundering around of the young, totally naive sisters in the city. And what held it all together was the wonderful writing, sounding a bit like a teenage diary and yet also managing somehow to be literary, often lyrical. Makes me want to read more by the same author – any suggestions?

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There are 3 comments

  1. As a Canadian, as a huge fan of Toews, and as a person who likes to promote Canadian Literature whenever possible…I feel I would be remiss if I did not suggest you check out some of Toews’s other novels. I think “Irma Voth” and “The Flying Troutmans” are her weaker (though still good) books. “A Complicated Kindness” and “Summer of My Amazing Luck” are my two favourites.

  2. Jeez – sorry for making a mess of your post here, Andrew! You can delete the first attempt of my reply — it had a typo. I failed to mention “A Boy of Good Breeding” – not sure why? I might like it the most of all of Towes’s novels.

    1. No worries, Jennifer! Three comments are better than no comments at all. I’ve deleted the one with the typo.

      Thanks so much for the recommendations. I’ll check out A Boy of Good Breeding, and then if I like that I’ll move on to the other two. Much appreciated!

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