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Irma Voth

Miriam Toews

(HarperCollins; US: Sep 2011)

Canadian writer Miriam Toews has a unique writing style that resembles J.D. Salinger. She combines a comic narrative with an incisive exploration of dysfunctional relationships. Both in her award-winning A Complicated Kindness and in her new novel, she looks at a father-daughter relationship in a religious context that is strict, even abusive.


The eponymous narrator in this new work is 19 and lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico called Campo 6.5. She has married a Mexican named Jorge, an outsider to her white, Low German-speaking group. Normally the people are “sorted like buttons,” expected “to stay where we’re put.”


Irma gives a quick and dirty history of Mennonite beginnings in 16th-century Europe and how certain of them moved “all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese.”


Jorge and Irma live in a small house owned by her father. Jorge leaves her until she learns “how to be a better wife” and goes to Mexico City, where he gets involved with drug dealers.


Meanwhile a film crew shows up to shoot a movie set among these Old Colony Mennonites. Diego, the director, learns that Irma knows several languages and asks her to translate for his lead actress, who speaks only German. (Toews acted in the 2007 film Silent Light by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.)


Toews’ comic gifts shine as she satirizes filmmakers. Various things go wrong, and the crew isn’t getting paid. Irma translates for Marijke, the German actress, giving her nonsensical lines rather than what Diego wants her to say.


Irma, having grown up in an isolated setting, is at sea when trying to figure out these people. She writes, “I knew more about the social significance of birdsong, I realized, than I did about human interaction.”


Irma’s father is opposed to the film. He tells other Mennonites that “Diego (is) stealing their women and perverting the will of God.” When he learns not only that Irma is working for the film but that her 13-year-old sister, Aggie, has dropped out of school and is hanging out with the film crew and staying with Irma, he tries to force Aggie back home.


The father’s religion is more a patina of his abuse than at the root of it. In talking with Irma about a crowd encouraging a suicidal man to jump from a building to his death, the father says that “we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous.”


At the same time, Toews provides some sympathetic notes that make the father a more rounded character. Irma remarks that her father “lost his family when he was a little kid,” and he expresses sorrow over some of his violent actions.


Toews’ ability to combine such harsh actions and characters with a comic narrative is remarkable — and at times jarring. Shortly after the above description of her father, Irma writes, “I could sleep in the barn like Jesus but without the entourage or the pressure to perform.”


The novel’s pace is quick and light, moving from one short scene to another. Suspense builds as Irma and Aggie flee with their baby sister to Mexico City and depend on the kindness of strangers. So much happens so quickly that the reader is unsure what will occur next.


At the same time, Irma provides peeks into the effect of leaving her isolated existence and entering an uncertain freedom. “For the first time in a million years it occurred to me that my chest wasn’t hurting and it was as though I were experiencing a strange, foreign feeling like bliss or something,” she writes.


Her harsh upbringing has not prepared her for this new life. She describes “a jazzy feeling in my chest, a fluttering, a kind of buzzing in my brain. Warmth. Life. The circulation of blood.”


Like many such coming-of-age narratives, Irma Voth reveals a deep, dark secret, a trauma that helps explain some of a character’s actions. Toews pulls this off well enough and brings her fast-paced narrative to a cautious, if hopeful resolution.


Toews is a fine writer and a pleasure to read. She writes about a world most people are unfamiliar with. Although her story has certain axes to grind, it is nevertheless an engaging read. And she is, after all, a novelist, not a sociologist or a theologian.


Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton, Kan. His book Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality has just been published by Cascadia.


 

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