Women Talking by Miriam Toews - Book Review

Women Talking by Miriam Toews - Book Review

Wow. Okay, I have a new favourite book.

Coming in at only 216 pages, this little book really packed a punch and left me pretty speechless. Based on true events where women ina remote Mennonite colony were raped in their sleep by fellow colony members and their reports dismissed as 'wild female imagination', this book imagines a conversation between the women about how they should proceed. They propose three options:

1. Do nothing.
2. Stay and fight.
3. Leave

So begins a long conversation that takes place over two days. The book is written from the perrspective of a man who has been asked to take the minutes of the meeting, as the women are unable to write. The narrator is in an interesting position, as he is not really seen as a 'proper' man - not threatening or violent like the other men in the colony have shown themselves to be. He left the colony with his parents as a teenager, before returning as an adult, and is now the schoolteacher, and so is seen as a sort of 'half' man, so the women feel comfortable with him at the meeting. He writes what the women say, what they do, when they take breaks and how they express themselves, and includes his own observations in his writing.

As you may have guessed from the nature of the book, it's not very plot heavy. As the title suggests, this book is literally women talking. But is it so powerful - and that's the point. In a remote, orthodox society where women have a very clear place and role in society, the fact that these women are sitting down and discussing these issues, possibly for the first time ever, is itself an incredibly powerful act. As one of the characters describes:

'We are women without a voice...We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams - so of course we are dreamers.'

That bit hit me right in the gut.

Together, the women discuss their place in their society. They discuss their religion, and how best to live by it. Is it possible to fully live a religious life when they are unable to interpret the word of God themselves? All they know of their religion is what the men have told them. They discuss the work they do in servitude of the men, and have a key discussion about what their purpose is. One of the most memorable parts of the book for me is when they begin to question whether they, as women, are nothing more than animals, since men are the ones in power in their society and they are there to serve the men and work, just like animals. What does this mean for the women?

‘But if we’re animals, or even animal-like, perhaps there’s no chance anyway of entering the gates of heaven…unless animals are permitted. Although that doesn’t make sense because animals provide food and labour, and we will require neither of those things in heaven. So perhaps, after all, Mennonite women will not be allowed into heaven because we fall into the category of animals, who will not be needed up there,’

They discuss the many contradictions in their world, and what forgiveness really means. Forgiveness is key to their religion, they should not hold grudges and must forgive others of any misdeeds. But at what cost? The attacks they have been subjected to were brutal in nature, and were comitted not just against the adult women of their society but also girls and very young children. Who is to say that, if they stay, it won't continue? And can they ever truly forgive the men for attacking their children?

‘But is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness? ...And isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive?'

I don't usually include quotes from the book in my reviews, but for this one I felt I really had to. There is just no other way to explain how beautifully it's written, how cleverly these complex ideas are summed up by these fantastic women who are clearly so unappreciated. This book is definitely different - it's a long philosophical chat, a discussion about humanity and society and women and kindness. The women involved in the conversation come alive - they don't always agree, they get hung up on small annoyances, they struggle with maintaining an orderly and fair discussion while also wanting to be heard fully.

Throughout the book, I felt like I was honoured to be a witness to what was going on. Of course, although it is inspired by true events, the book is purely fictional, but I love the idea of it. What went through these women's minds? How did they make sense of what had happened?

This book is so incredibly clever and delivers so many brilliant thoughts and ideas that it just left me reeling. It's really unique, and if you go in expecting plot you will be disappointed, but if you take it for what it is - a revolutionary discussion between women deciding how to construct their own identity - you certainly won't be disappointed.

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