I suspect Miriam Toews's writing is an acquired taste because I know plenty of people who find it all a bit perplexing. I know to expect different and quirky when I open the first page, to expect a different sort of book ride to the average and to be prepared to just go with the flow and see where Miriam takes me, and if you can cope with all of that then I don't think you will be disappointed with Irma Voth.
And what is it that is so endlessly fascinating to me about the Mennonite communities that Miriam Toews portrays so vividly?
I'm guessing it's the shelf full of quilt books like Mennonite Quilts and Pieces which portray such a homey image of horses and traps, girls in bonnets and of course the quilts.
Amish plains were the fashion back when I had my little quilt shop in the late 1980s. I used to sell them by the bolt with ease, and we all revelled in putting together our drab and sombre purples, deep reds and indigos into a large and simple geometric design. This in order to create the functional over the frivolous, but also deeply embedded was that sense of timelessness, tradition and permanency. The plainess offering the perfect backdrop for some grand quilting flourishes once we had the confidence not to be hiding our woeful and wonky stitches in the busy florals.
And I'd pore over my great big books of Amish quilt designs...
... and feel some strange sort of affinity, a thread of connection with a vast unseen heritage of quilting women; with Mildred Stutzman as I traced her designs onto my own quilts and wondered what Irma Gingerich's Peanut Butter pie tasted like.
Yes I bought into the whole Amish-Mennonite thing alright.
But illusions are there to be dispelled and Miriam Toews is devastating in her fictional verdict on religious communities now faced with subsequent generations of children much less ready to embrace the beliefs and austere lifestyle of their parents.
Irma, recently married and quickly deserted, 'lives' alongside her family in a Mennonite community strangely relocated overnight from Canada to Mexico. Under the patriarchal gaze of a cruel and despotic father Irma has married 'out' of the community and as such must be shunned, even if her husband Jorge seems to have left her. The family including Irma's silently crushed and dominated mother, always seemingly about to give birth to yet another child, live right next door but would and do, on her father's brutally enforced insistence, leave Irma to starve rather than have anything to do with her.
When a film crew arrive to make a movie about the Mennonite community Irma's duplicitous father takes the money whilst morally disapproving of the whole venture, and Irma seizes her chance and starts working for them as a translator. Her family, including her increasingly rebellious younger sister Aggie, watch on....and then there is the mystery of the disappearance of the shadowy older sister, Kate, snippets slowly dripped into the narrative.
Poor Irma, naive, child-like and fearful yet selfless when it comes to her family whilst equally capable of moments of rebellion of her own... not least the circumstances of her marriage, but some wonderful moments when she translates the director's instructions to his German-speaking leading lady as Irma would like to see the scene acted, not as the director has asked. Irma will have to step up to the plate and make some difficult decisions in order to keep herself and Aggie safe when the pair of them decide to flee the wrath and oppression of their father and head to Mexico city. As it happens, they have someone else along for the ride, some excess baggage of great import in the grander scheme of things and I don't want to tell you who for fear of spoiling, but when the final act plays out and the reasons for the family's sudden overnight move from Canada become apparent, a lot of plot pennies slip into place and much is revealed.
But not everything because Miriam Toews is good at silences, and concealment, the unsayable, whilst leaving the reader in no doubt about where she wants them to see the evil. And given the filmic nature of parts of the plot, there is something spliced and edited about Irma's version of her life too and in the end, like the director, Miriam Toews allows Irma to take charge and call the shots.
A book about the misappropriation of religious belief, the dangers and duplicity of religious extremism, but also a book about courage and self-respect and ultimately about redemption and forgiveness, and all pulled off in Miriam Toews's own unique and inimitable style.
Irma Voth may not be for everyone, but Miriam Toews writing will always definitely be for me, I am never disappointed and always prepared to be surprised...hurry up and write the next one Miriam.