All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

AMPSBrittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Portland woman, recently acted on her legal right (in Oregon) to “die with dignity.” In January she was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer and given less than a year to live. Rather than spend her last months in and out of hospitals and shackled to life-prolonging machines, she took a fatal dose of pills while she was still relatively healthy — a “suicide” of sorts sanctioned by her family.

Maynard’s actions generated a firestorm of both positive and negative publicity across the country. They also stoked the embers of a longstanding debate over whether it’s ethical to allow a person to be the arbiter of his or her own fate. Is taking your own life — assisted or otherwise, terminally ill or cripplingly depressed — a noble deed or infuriatingly selfish? Or perhaps a murky mess of both?

Dealing with suicide of any kind, for whatever reason, is a terrible business, one Canadian author Miriam Toews knows well. In her searing 2001 quasi-memoir Swing Low: A Life, she adopted the voice of her father and explored the ramifications of his lifelong manic depression and his decision to kill himself. In 2010 she lost her older (and only) sister to the same end. While much of Toews’s fiction — A Complicated Kindness (2004), The Flying Troutmans (2009), and three other novels — contains material drawn from her life growing up in a rural Mennonite community, All My Puny Sorrows, her new novel inspired by the premature deaths of those closest to her, is the most personal. Maybe that’s why it’s so soul-crushingly beautiful.

Told from the perspective of the younger, seemingly less-together sister Yolandi in flashbacks, letters, and in gorgeously crafted prose, the saga of Elfrieda Von Riesen’s enviable but ultimately tragic life unfolds as she evolves from a precocious Samuel Taylor Coleridge-quoting child full of unconventional ideas and elaborate plans to dupe the stuffy elders in her close-knit family’s East Village Mennonite community into a world-renowned classical pianist (think a flawless rendition of Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23) with fortune and fame aplenty. Add that to an unfailingly devoted life partner who weathers Elf’s mood spells without an iota of irritation and any outsider looking in would assume that she had figured out how to do what most of us only dream of — have it all.

But fortysomething Elf isn’t just dissatisfied with her virtually perfect lot; she’s consumed by an all-encompassing existential despair and is actively courting death — pleading with Yoli to take her to Switzerland during one of her recital tours so she can legally end her own life. When Elf lands in a psychiatric ward after yet another suicide attempt, it’s all Yoli can do — rattled with guilt over not being able to prevent their father’s jump in front of a train years earlier — but beg the hospital’s orderlies over and over again: “Please don’t let her go.”

To Toews’s credit (and to some reader’s potential discomfort), Yoli actually considers her request. Never mind a looming divorce, two kids from different men, and a stalled writing career, Yoli’s focuses on Elf’s welfare over her own and flies back and forth from Toronto to Winnipeg to oversee her care. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” she tells herself.  But would Yoli be a monster if she helped kill her sister? Or would it be the ultimate self-sacrifice — giving her sister what she truly wanted most?

All My Puny Sorrows might just be the ideal reading choice for a Debbie Downer. But it isn’t merely a one-note story of a woman’s struggle with suicidal depression or a family’s desperate attempts to muddle through the coping routine. It’s also Toews’s shrewd indictment of the type of inadequate treatment plans that fail tens of thousands of mentally ill patients each year. Elf’s cycling through the “smarmy self-help racket that existed only to sell books and anesthetize the vulnerable and allow the so-called ‘helping’ profession to bask in self-congratulation for having done what they could,” the careless doctors doling out meds willy-nilly, and the apathetic psychiatrists shilling stale or even harmful advice speaks volumes about a health care system that seems irreparably broken.

Yet despite all the bleakness, there are many moments to be savored in this novel that provide welcome comic relief (one of particular merit involving an unsuspecting child flinging ashes from an urn into the air and in his mouth (!) during a wake). Elf is not without a snarky, almost ebullient sense of humor at times. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she says to Yoli after waking up in the hospital after a second suicide attempt. The girls’ mother — a wine-drinking, joke-cracking soldier of optimism — is a force to be reckoned with too. A model of Toews’s own mom — surviving the premature death of two loved ones, she’s living proof of the age-old proverb: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Toward the beginning of the novel as a 17-year-old Elf is heading to Norway for a recital and leaving home for good, Yoli is interviewing her big sister for a class newspaper about why she enjoys playing piano. “The most important thing [is] to establish the tenderness right off the bat, or at least close to the top of the piece, just a hint of it, a whisper, but a deep whisper because the tension will mount, the excitement and the drama will build,” Elf responds. “When the action rises the audience might remember the earlier moment of tenderness, and remembering will make them long to return to infancy, to safety, to pure love, then you might move away from that, put the violence and agony of life into every note, building, building still, until there is an important decision to make: return to tenderness, even briefly, glancingly, or continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end.” It might be Elf’s notions of music, but it’s also a spot-on description of Toews’s novel.

Why does suicide happen? How should it be treated? Is assisted suicide of any kind morally acceptable? How should families cope? All My Puny Sorrows doesn’t provide any answers. But it does an exceptional job in laying bare life’s puny sorrows in all their infuriating complexities.


Originally ran in The Oregonian (December 16, 2014)

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