The fiction of award-winning Canadian novelist Miriam Toews has centered around two often overlapping projects: interrogating the conservative Mennonite culture in which she grew up and giving voice to women who challenge the beliefs and norms of their communities. These projects unite once again in her most recent novel, “Women Talking,’’ a painful, thought-provoking, strangely lovely gem rendered broadly relevant by our #MeToo moment.
The precipitating action mirrors actual historical events, the 2009 arrest of eight men who used animal-anesthetic spray to drug and rape 130 women in Manitoba Colony, a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Similarly, in the fictional Molotschna (named for the 19th-century Russian Mennonite settlement from which the forbears of Manitoba Colony emigrated), “nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins.” As the novel begins, the rapists have been revealed to be “real men from Molotschna, many of whom are the close relatives — brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews — of the women,” who ranged from toddler to elderly.
Rather than dramatizing the assaults, however, Toews considers their imagined aftermath. The accused have been arrested, partly for their own security (one was attacked with a scythe, another hanged in revenge). The community’s leader has given the women two choices: forgive the suspects or leave Molotschna. With the remaining men away posting bail for the accused, eight women — two grandmothers, each with two adult daughters and a teenage granddaughter — secretly gather in a hayloft to make their decision. The novel takes the form of the minutes of their meeting, transcribed by a sympathetic male teacher. His narrative unfolds a horrifying history and a moving interrogation of the fate of women in a society under patriarchal theocratic control.
Their discussion takes the women deep into theology, philosophy, psychology, and a nascent feminism they can barely articulate. To make their decision, they must parse their relative accountability to their children, husbands, community, and God; consider whether humans are different from animals; contemplate the possibility that the men who have raped them are also “victims of the circumstances from which Molotschna has been created”; identify whose responsibility it is to help bad men become better; decide when boys become men (so they can determine whether to take their male children with them if they leave);ascertain the limits of their commitment to pacifism (when they want to kill the men who have left their mothers, sisters, and daughters “bruised and infected and pregnant and terrified and insane and some of [them] dead”; and more. Over the course of two days, they argue, accuse, reconcile, laugh, sing, and care for each other, as they move toward control of their own destinies and a decision they can all embrace.
In a book that is at once allegory and story, the eight women serve as avatars for the roles available to women, but also come alive as personalities whose complex relationships have been formed by decades of insular intimacy and conflict. The grandmothers, Agata and Greta, are, respectively, practical and wise, but hardly icons: Agata does a little dance when pleased; Greta loves her horses, Ruth and Cheryl; and both are riddled with aches and pains. Agata’s daughter Ona, whose “Narfa, or Nervousness” liberates as much as it limits her, is a visionary free spirit. While dreamy Ona refuses to buy in to the values of Molotschna, her passionate sister Salome, “a formidable iconoclast,” is “a puzzling contradiction, defiant yet traditional, combative and rebellious yet eager to enforce the rules when it comes to others.” Mariche, Greta’s daughter, is analytical, observant, and “ever defiant” herself. The teenagers, Neitje and Autje, so close they braid their hair into a single plait, are variously irritated by their elders, bristling with adolescent bravado, dedicated to the women’s cause, and frequently asleep.
If “Women Talking’’ is a novel of talk and ideas, it also has action: arrests, thefts, beatings, practical jokes, even love stories. Indeed, the book itself can be read as a love letter from the emasculated, outcast schoolteacher who narrates it, August Epp, to Ona, whom he has loved all his life. While Molotschna has permanently damaged them both, their continued commitment to envisioning alternatives — and to each other — provides a beacon for hope.
At the heart of “Women Talking’’ lies the question of how women can create a better world for themselves and for those they love amid a culture of male sexual violence, the continued power of patriarchy, their own differences, and the limits of language itself. It’s a question that resonates across the globe today, and in answering it, we could do much worse than to start with the manifesto of the women of Molotschna: “We want our children to be safe . . . We want to be steadfast in our faith. We want to think.”
By Miriam Toews
Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $24
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Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’