All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

A fiction pick by Jean-Louis

amps (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Miriam Toews is one of our best writers in that she is able to lay bare the human heart, she can walk us through tears, and she shows us how to carry on with life. Courageously, Toews has acknowledged that most of her writing has elements drawn from her own life. In her new novel, Toews once again explores the issue of suicide of a family member.

In her “non-fiction” work, Swing Low: A Life, Toews appropriated her father’s voice to portray his life and ultimate suicide. In All My Puny Sorrows she has made the decision to write the book as a fiction, inspired by the suicide of her own sister. The character Yolandi closely resembles Miriam Toews. She is a 40-something writer is balancing an ex-husband, multiple lovers, adult/teenage children, an aging mother and aunt, and a desperately ill sister, Elfrieda. And Yolandi is juggling all these demands while trying to write a novel and maintain her own sanity. Life ain’t easy!

This novel is real–it faces up to the challenges of a family caught in the storm of mental illness. The story explores the concepts of loyalty, friendship, and family–and takes us right to the breaking point. Many people may ask why would I want to read such a depressing book? But I would say that this novel, like all great novels, is an opportunity for the reader gain a vocabulary for dealing with tough situations which life will ultimately deliver to our door. While no one will wish for the circumstances faced by the Toews family, hard times will meet us all. The challenges of mental illness may reach into our own family and certainly we will know friends or neighbors who will come face to face with this reality. Miriam Toews has come up to this sadness, faced it, and shown us a way forward.


  1. Good description Jean Louis , I think I just may purchase this book or should I apply for a library card ? Haven’t had one since 1969 .

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