Women Talking by Miriam Toews, review by Hannah Riedell
Between 2005 and 2009, the women in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia woke up covered in bruises and blood, with no knowledge of what had caused it. Some described it as wild female imagination, others said the women were being visited by demons and the devil. In fact, the women were being visited by a small group of men in the community, their brothers, fathers, uncles, who used an animal anesthetic spray to put whole households to sleep, before assaulting the female members of the community. The youngest victim was three, the oldest over eighty. In 2011, the majority of the men were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Women Talking is set in this community in the days following the arrest of the men. It is a fictional imagining of a series of meetings held by some of the affected women as they decide what to do. The story is narrated by August Epp, a male member of the community, the schoolteacher, but largely viewed as an outsider as he was once excommunicated from the same colony. He is asked by the women to record the minutes of the meeting. The women spend the time discussing the options available to them – do they do nothing, do they stay and fight or do they leave? Alongside this discussion is the influence of their religion, as they have already been informed by the community religious leader, if they do not forgive the men, none of the women will be admitted to heaven.
This is an excellent book that was nominated for the Governor General Award for English-language fiction in Canada. At a time when the position and treatment of women in society is in the news and everyday conversation, it feels particularly poignant. The book covers so many topics – women's rights, their societal positions and value, their roles in life, female relationships, religion, and forgiveness. The constant presence of the abuse is approached with incredible tact and understanding by Toews. There are never any scenes added for the sake of drama. Everything is subtle and understated, which in many ways is what is so effective about this book.