Critic, Book World

The story of Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman in Oregon who committed suicide earlier this month after making her intention public, forces us to consider — or repress — wrenching questions about how life ends. As that discussion continues in homes, legislatures and places of worship, please make room for “All My Puny Sorrows,” by Canadian writer Miriam Toews.

I’ve been in love with Toews since 2004, when she published “A Complicated Kindness,” a wincingly funny story about a 16-year-old girl trapped in a small Mennonite town. Her next book, “The Flying Troutmans,” drove us through comedy and pathos on a strange family road trip. And now comes this unbearably sad, improbably witty novel inspired by the suicides of her father and only sister. This is the story of a little group — “a tainted family, deranged” — that revolves around a woman determined to kill herself.

I know, I know, what could sound less appealing than an almost plotless novel about the grinding stone of suicidal depression? Even the narrator’s mom says she has had it with novels about sad protagonists. “Okay, she’s sad!” she exclaims. “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!”

And yet, Canadians have pushed “All My Puny Sorrows” up the bestseller list. The novel was a finalist for the Giller Prize, and last week it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Those readers and critics up north are responding to the alchemy of Toews’s storytelling, which looks so deceptively modest on the surface. In the crucible of her genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life.

In the opening pages of “All My Puny Sorrows,” we meet the Von Riesen sisters, restless adolescents in East Village, a Mennonite community established as “a godly refuge from the vices of the world.” (“Our old Sunday school teacher told us that she loved us but that God loved us more. We told her to try harder.”) Their father is “an oddball, a quiet depressive, studious guy who . . . believed that reading and writing and reason were the tickets to paradise.” That heretical attitude puts him constantly at odds with the censorious leaders of the town.

“All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews. (McSweeney's)

Even more troublesome, his older daughter, Elfrieda — nicknamed “Elf” — is a brilliant iconoclast who quotes romantic poetry and drives the church “elders into paroxysms of rage and fear.” Her younger sister, Yolandi — nicknamed “Yoli” — narrates the novel from a position of baffled adoration. Yoli confesses that she was “very often looking around for solid clues to what was going on and never finding them.” But whatever her beautiful older sister does seems dazzling — from literally painting the town red to pounding out Rachmaninoff on the family’s forbidden piano.

Thirty years later, everything about Elf’s promising adolescence has come to fruition: She’s a world-renowned musician with a partner who loves her. So how could she end up strapped to a hospital bed in a psych ward, with a history of suicide attempts?

That’s the question — the unfathomable mystery of the noonday demon — that Yoli struggles to answer throughout this novel. Why can’t Elf appreciate her blessed life? Is she poisoned by the genetic twist that drove their father to jump in front of a train? Is she haunted by the suffering of their ancestors who were murdered a century ago in Siberia? What keeps a successful, beloved, otherwise healthy person stranded in the darkness at noon?

All Yoli knows is that her sister had “never adjusted to the light, she’d just never developed a tolerance for the world.” Too sane to incarcerate, too deceptive to trust, Elf is that cursed patient who doesn’t want to get better, who feigns cooperation but skips her appointments, stops taking her meds and finally opens a vein or steps into traffic or resorts to any one of a number of infernal methods of self-destruction. To the truly determined, all the world’s a razor’s edge. Who are we to intervene?

The novel’s self-deprecating title comes from a poem that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote to Charles Lamb in 1794, describing his unflagging grief:

I too a sister had, an only sister —

She loved me dearly, and I doted on her!

Author Miriam Toews (Carol Loewen)

To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows.

Having rejected the Mennonite tradition and its “squad of perpetual disapprovers,” Yoli and Elf have feasted on a world of literature. “We were a word family,” Yoli says. In fact, the novel is laced with literary references, from Italo Calvino, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Raymond Chandler and John Clare, to D.H. Lawrence and even A.A. Milne. But nowhere can Elf find a balm for her anguish.

There are conversations in this novel so heartbreaking that you will be tempted to recoil, but Toews is working near the emotional territory of Lorrie Moore, where humor is a bulwark against despair. Informed that among her many other problems, her house is infested with carpenter ants, Yoli quips, “Good. Put them to work rebuilding the broken door.” Yes, this harrowingly autobiographical novel sounds a bit “Harold and Maude,” but there’s little black comedy. Instead, Toews mines the frustration and absurdity of caring for someone set on self-destruction. From her own experience, she portrays the shocking indifference and ineffectuality of some mental-health-care practitioners. But what really confounds her is the depressive’s maddening self-absorption, a mind trapped in that mesmeric hall of mirrors where every affirmation of hope looks ridiculous and the only pathway seems to spiral downward.

The story, though, is always Yoli’s. She’s the one left sucking on the irony of her successful sister’s “weariness of life.” She wants to shout, “Listen! If anyone’s gonna kill themselves it should be me.” After all, by most standards, Yoli is the failed sibling: no money, no job, no spouse, and a sputtering career as a writer of horsey young-adult novels. “I stare out the window,” she says, “and reflect on the similarity between writing and saving a life and the inevitable failure of one’s imagination and one’s goals and ambitions to create a character or a life worth saving.”

In the end, Yoli knows she can’t make that decision for anyone else, but that’s no relief from the paradox of her relationship with her sister: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Between those distant poles, Toews hangs a tale about the unspeakable pain and surprising joy of persisting in the world, puny sorrows and all.

Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in The Washington Post every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.