Book review: All My Puny Sorrows

Miriam ToewsThis is a novel about depression, suicide, death, broken families, love and music. Yes, it is sad, but it is also laugh-out-loud in places. Canadian writer Miriam Toews drew heavily on her own experiences in the writing of All My Puny Sorrows, and that depth of empathy shines from every page. Do not ignore this book because you think it will be depressing: it is uplifting, and you will feel sad to finish it.

The story centres on sisters Yolandi and Elfrieda von Riesen. Elf, the elder, is a concert pianist. Yoli writes the Rodeo Rhonda teen novels. Elf’s story – and that of the family of women surrounding the two sisters, their mother, their aunt, Yoli’s daughter, their friends – is told by Yoli. “When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-turner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized. Page turning is a particular art. I had to be just ahead of her in the music and move like a snake when I turned the page so there was no crinkling and no sticking and no thwapping. Her words.”

We do not hear Elf’s inner voice except in excerpts from letters and poems. What we do have is Yoli’s contemplation of Elf’s request to be taken to Switzerland to end her own life. No judgements are made although Yoli runs through every gamut of emotion from sorrow to guilt to anger to exasperation to despair. She loves her sister and does not want to lose her, but if her sister is so unhappy then how can she not help her? Is Elf’s wish not hugely selfish, does she not care for the feelings of those she will leave behind? Anyone who has been close to someone with a long-term illness will recognise many of the healthcare situations and Yoli’s many meltdowns with medical authority.

It is a sad, poignant book which made me laugh out loud.

All My Puny Sorrows was shortlisted for The Folio Prize 2015 and I totally understand why.

Click here to listen to this Writers Trust of Canada interview with Miriam Toews about All My Puny Sorrows.

If you like ‘All My Puny Sorrows’, try these other Canadian authors:-
‘The Bear’ by Claire Cameron
‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’ by Emma Hooper
Anything by Margaret Atwood

‘All My Puny Sorrows’ by Miriam Toews [UK: Faber and Faber] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by @MiriamToews #bookreview via @SandraDanby

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