I liked it or it wouldn't be here, no I loved it, and having read Miriam Toews (an ImoGen / Imogen moment here as I discover Toews is pronounced Taves, so my sincere apologies for making Miriam sound like a set of metatarsals for the last few years ) previous novels A Complicated Kindness and A Boy of Good Breeding, The Flying Troutmans goes to the top of my list of great Miriam reads and I'm grateful once more to the Orange Prize longlist for ensuring that I read a book that has been on my shelves and waiting for quite a while.
This is a book about the ties that bind us, the power of a family under the stress of mental illness to find and build on their resilience, and the Troutmans do everything in that wondrously Bohemian way that many may hanker after but few actually do.
Hattie returns to Canada from Paris to nurse her sister Min and care for Min's children Logan and Thebes (Theodora) through yet another debilitating episode of Min's mental illness. It is eleven year old Thebes who has phoned in the middle of the night and begged her to come home.
'In the world of children, Min was a genius, she could navigate it in her sleep...but out there, in that other world, she was continually crashing into things.'
Min is admitted to a psychiatric ward and as Social Services start to encroach, Hattie, in a state of mild panic at a responsibility she didn't really ask for but must now assume, packs bags, long-journey activities and almost the kitchen sink into the car, along with fifteen year old Logan and Thebes and sets off . Hattie has decided, on the merest hint of a clue as to his whereabouts, to drive from Canada right down to Mexico in search of Cherkis, the children's father.
The journey becomes a form of talking therapy for Hattie, Logan and Thebes,
'Conversing with children is a fine art, I realized. An art form that demands large amounts of both honesty and misdirection. Or maybe discretion is a better word. Or a gradual release of information like time-controlled vitamins. Either way my own befuddled attempts were pathetic andI wanted to have more than odd, cryptic conversations with Logan and Thebes.'
As the miles tick by they explore their lives, their emotions, their relationships and this whole family thing in an unwitting attempt to ensure that those ties that bind will safely see them through and knit them together for all time,
'I was happy they were talking. Remembering. Reminiscing about their childhood, like it hadn't all been one long march to the frozen Gulag.
Hattie enters that steep learning curve as she drives and frequently has to think very quickly on her feet,
'Okay, bad times are gonna roll, I thought, Logan is planning to run away before we find Cherkis.
No a fifteen year old cannot live on his own, I said.
Pippi Longstocking wasn't even fifteen, said Thebes, and she -
Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.
And she was Swedish said Logan.
So there would have been a solid safety net of social programmes to keep her afloat, I said. It doesn't work here.'
Taking the speech out of the context of the book just fails miserably in an attempt to give you an impression of just how funny and yet somehow serious by turns The Flying Troutmans is, but if you have ever wondered about or perhaps experienced for yourself the profound
effects of mental illness on a family don't be afraid to read this book,
because it is filled with hope and optimism and so much humour that I couldn't help but fall into step with Family Troutman, and in particular with the wonderful Thebes.
I think this is a world Miriam Toews (wish you'd all told me about the Taves thing, I feel really stupid now) knows and alongside it she either remains intuitively in touch with her inner child or is surrounded by children because Thebes is an absolute delight; time and again it's Thebes who calls it like it is but in her own inimitable style
In fact I'd almost like her to meet Flavia deLuce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, because I think they'd click and be lifelong friends in an instant, and actually the one thing missing in both their lives is a kindred spirit and you hope against hope that Thebes eventually finds one. Add in Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables and you have quite a little gang of free thinkers from Canadian literature there.
I don't often mention the music I listen to while I read, but I usually have something trilling gently in the background and for a road trip with the Troutmans Joni Mitchell's Miles of Aisles on repeat was perfect. More than perfect because quite oddly each time the song which happens to be one of my favourites came around I seemed to have reached a little moment in the book when it encapsulated the secret wish of whoever was of greatest concern at that moment, it was a bit of magical reading synchronicity,
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly...
Names in comments and, if we can keep Rocky's paws off the fishy bit of the title, a copy of The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews could be winging its way to you and I don't think you'd be disappointed.