From the very beginning of Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, it’s clear that the narrator’s older sister, Elfrieda, will kill herself. The tone is by turns frantic and elegiac, full of both hope and dread; the tense is by turns anxiously present and reminiscent of both the recent and distant past. Although the possibility that she won’t go through with it animates the novel’s plot and protagonists, that hopefulness ultimately exists apart from Elfrieda, who is, for all that we learn about her extraordinary gifts, ultimately a cipher.
Leveled at a writer less gifted than Toews, this might be a criticism. All My Puny Sorrows is her sixth novel and a singular achievement, so unexpectedly free of the usual wilting sentimentality and sweeping platitudes that we use to speak about death, family, and the much dramatized yet little understood phenomenon of mental illness.
Narrated by Yolandi Von Riesen, who goes by the nickname Yoli, All My Puny Sorrows has been characterized as “darkly funny”—a cliché that does justice neither to the novel nor its protagonist and her humor, which is more than just a voice, perhaps a genre unto itself. “Darkly funny” is a placeholder term, a phrase we use to indicate that the novel is funny while also being “about suicide.” It connotes lofty aspirations, both intellectual and aesthetic; it might mean that the novel is a deep and involved examination of suicide from a perspective that is somewhat academic, which is to say that the book contains many literary references and is written from the point of view of an experienced and studied outsider—someone who is not suicidal. But All My Puny Sorrows is not actually academic, or darkly funny; it is merely and wonderfully a novel that tells us something close to the truth.
All My Puny Sorrows is a portrait of an idiosyncratic, intellectual family. During the sisters’ childhood, the family consists of Yoli and Elfrieda—who also goes by Elf—along with their loving mother and father; during the crises of Elf’s final suicide attempts and for the majority of the narrative, it includes Yoli’s two teenage children, Elf’s husband Nic, an aunt as hearty and jolly as their mother, and more. The girls are raised in a small Mennonite village in Canada, though it’s not really explained why; the insular, stuffy requirements of the village elders are always brushed off, ignored, or rejected, sometimes to the point of temporary excommunication. To Yoli, her older sister is the embodiment of brilliance and beauty, from childhood occasionally seeming like a revolutionary as well as the “center of the spinning world.” As an adult, Elf is a glamorous classical pianist apparently in possession of an otherworldly talent. She also has a working knowledge of what seems like every book she’s ever read and a plethora of foreign languages; she’s been married for years to Nic, who is besotted by her and unwavering in his devotion, even in the face of Elf’s increasingly harrowing psychological torment; she is very thin and elegant and looks much younger than her age.