What I’m reading: All My Puny Sorrows


Miriam has become a friend, so I will have to file this under an appreciation rather than an impartial review, but I admired her work long before I met her. She has an inimitable voice that is wise and funny and always unflinching. I’ve seen her described as the ‘queen of voice’ but I think the ‘queen of heart’ is more accurate. In spite of terrible loss in her own family, she has a furious and abiding love of life that is apparent in every word she writes.

This is a book I would have liked to devour in a sitting or two, but life circumstances prevented that. Shortly after I started reading it, my grandmother had a massive stroke. I read most of it as I sat by her, as I did every day after the stroke for a few hours a day, as she lay dying. That’s the kind of book this is. There is strength and courage in it, but there is an overarching acceptance of death that’s rare and beautiful. This is the book you want at a time of grief and sorrow.

All My Puny Sorrows searches for meaning and connection while giving these qualities over as it does. The questions she raises are answers in their own right while remaining resolutely open. It’s brilliant in conception and masterfully written. I was reminded of John Keats’ definition of ‘negative capability’ as I read, from a letter he wrote to his brothers in 1817:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Toews has been candid about the autobiographical nature of this book (her beloved sister, whom Miriam had been trying to keep alive, succeeded in killing herself). In the book, Yolandi and Elfrieda assume the sisters’ roles with Elf as a brilliant, suicidal classical pianist and Yoli (whom Elf calls ‘Swivelhead’) as the loving, self-deprecating, and devastated novelist sister trying to save Elf from her own despair.

The mood of the novel is somber and dark (how can a novel about imminent suicide not be?) but it’s punctuated with a wry humour that had me laughing aloud. How does she pull this off? She sees life for the grand parade of absurdity and beauty and tragedy that it is, and she can give this over on every page. Joy and humour coexist with sorrow and tragedy. There are no divisions.

I’ve turned the corner of so many pages that there is too much to quote here, and this will be a book that I go to for its wisdom. But this is one of my favourites:

My sister was a dark blur moving towards a rectangle of light. But now after hearing my mom’s survival dream I think maybe this is my survival dream and it’s not a nightmare. It’s the beginning of my own cure. Because to survive something we first need to know what it is we’re surviving.