One sister pours her life force into her sibling, desperate to keep her deep depression at bay in this beautifully written account, All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.
Miriam Toews is a sneaky writer. Hidden towards the end of her latest novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is the perfect one-line review of the book. Her protagonist Yolanda writes of her mother's literary style that it is "breezy, playful, good with details and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating".
All My Puny Sorrows is a love story about the affection and admiration Yolanda feels for her sister Elfrieda, known to the family as Elf.
Both sisters are artists. Yolanda is a novelist, known for her "rodeo romances" but harbouring ambitions to move into literary fiction. Elf is a world-renowned pianist.
As far as Yoli is concerned, her sister is a genius and she, Yoli, is a mess. For the reader, this impression is reversed: Yoli seems able (just about) to cope with the world while her sister is determined to die.
At first, the prose in All My Puny Sorrows is almost cute, each sentence so perfectly polished that it feels too rich to read. Yoli is so eager to see everything that surrounds her in the best possible light that sharing her company feels exhausting. Then, slowly, it becomes clear that this is her way of dealing with her sister's depression.
Yoli feels an urge to be endlessly entertaining, hoping that she can keep Elf alive, but Elf has already separated herself from life and nothing will bring her back from the brink. Slowly, the energy drains from the prose and the descriptions become less vivid but more emotionally real.
Suicide is a notoriously difficult subject to deal with in fiction and Toews name checks the few authors who have written about it successfully in the past (Goethe, Al Alvarez, a handful of poets). Even harder than writing about it is being able to say something new about the subject but Toews succeeds.
There is a connection between the novel and Toews' own life. Like Yoli, her father and sister committed suicide, and the amount of artistic energy it must have taken to create literature out of this is almost unfathomable. What is most affecting about the novel is the way that Yoli worships her sister and takes her suicidal impulses as an essential part of her humanity that she does not want to change and yet, more than anything, she longs to keep her alive.
This must have been an impossibly painful book to write but it is nothing but pure pleasure to read.