Review by New York Times Review
BETWEEN 2005 AND 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to "wild female imagination." In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious. This real-life horror story inspired Miriam Toews's scorching sixth novel, "Women Talking," set in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna, where nearly every girl and woman has been raped. But don't expect a crime novel full of detail about the assaults, and don't expect an excavation of the survivors' emotional experience. Toews skips over the rapes and the apprehension of the rapists, cutting straight to existential questions facing the women in the aftermath. "Women Talking" is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will, collective responsibility, cultural determinism and, above all, forgiveness. As Agata Friesen, an unflappable matriarch, puts it: "Let's talk about our sadness after we have nailed down our plan." They don't have a lot of time. The men of Molotschna have traveled to town to bail the rapists out of jail. Should the women still be there when the men return? In a mouse-infested hayloft, sitting on overturned milk buckets, the women drink instant coffee, joke, smoke, weep, endure bouts of morning sickness (one of the women was impregnated by an "unwelcome visitor," as the colony's male elders call the rapists) and debate what a better future might look like. The narrator is the local schoolteacher, August Epp, who grew up Mennonite and speaks Plautdietsch, but also lived for many years outside the community. The women recruit him to take minutes at their meetings because they can't read or write; they trust him because he is, as one woman says, "an effeminate man who is unable to properly till a field or eviscerate a hog." In other words, harmless. Like his introspective fourth-century namesake, August was once paralyzed by guilt over stealing some pears, and he's prone to extravagant bouts of self-loathing. When August broods on his own sorrows, the novel sags. When he transcribes what these angry women say to one another, it crackles. The women have come up with three competing plans. They can remain in the colony and live exactly as they did before the assaults, they can stay and fight for change or they can hitch up their buggies and leave. Although they disagree constantly and sharply, there's one point on which they concur: They have been treated like animals - and it didn't start with the rapes. "When our men have used us up so that we look 60 when we're 30 and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters," a woman named Salome says. "And if they could sell us all at auction afterwards they would." Fierce, articulate Salome often gets the last word, but the novel is a choral ensemble piece in which each woman chimes in with a distinctive voice. Toews, who was raised Mennonite and left the church at 18, depicts the women at the center of the novel with insight, sympathy and respect. Their conversation is loose, unpredictable, occasionally profane and surprisingly funny. The best parts of the narrative consist of women asking questions and other women answering, with little description or editorializing from August. Practical concerns loom large. How will the women survive if they leave? As Agata says: "We're unable to read, we're unable to write, we're unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world - we have no world map." A tentative point in favor of leaving: "We will see a little bit of the world?" On the list of cons: "We won't be forgiven." But while the practical obstacles to leaving are formidable, the philosophical questions are at the heart of the discourse. The women of Molotschna haven't read Plato, but they've got the principles of Socratic dialogue down cold. Given that biblical law mandates women obey their husbands, chain-smoking Mejal wonders if it isn't a sin to leave them. Salome retorts that it is impossible to disobey a Bible that none of them have ever actually read. Agata pronounces : "Our faith requires of us absolute commitment to pacifism, love and forgiveness. By staying, we risk these things. We will be at war with our attackers because we've acknowledged that we - well, some of us - want to kill them." Salome, who went after the rapists with a scythe, scoffs at the idea of an "absolute commitment" to love: "A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life." But if Salome stays in the colony, she will not be allowed even her tiny nugget of hate. The community's leader, Bishop Peters, has decreed that if the rapists ask to be forgiven, the women must forgive them. If they don't, the men will be barred from heaven and the women excommunicated, forfeiting their own places in the celestial kingdom. Is coerced forgiveness even forgiveness? wonders dreamy, eccentric Ona, whom Peters has nicknamed "the Devil's daughter." Maybe they shouldn't worry too much about getting into heaven, Salome grumbles, as there are no chores up there, so beasts of burden probably aren't even allowed. One of the biggest questions is the degree to which all the men in Molotschna are responsible (or not) for what the rapists did. "Perhaps not all men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men's hearts and minds," Ona says. But doesn't this view actually exonerate the rapists? Doesn't it suggest, as one of the women puts it, "that all of us, men and women, are victims of the circumstances from which Molotschna has been created?" By loosening the tongues of disenfranchised women and engaging them in substantive dialogue about their lives, Toews grants them agency they haven't enjoyed in life. By refusing to focus on the crimes that launched this existential reappraisal, she treats them as dignified individuals rather than props in a voyeuristic entertainment. The only problem with this approach is that the grotesque and bizarre crime wave that launches the narrative remains all but unfathomable. It looms in the background, begging to be dramatized and explained. You don't need an appetite for the salacious to want to know how a handful of men could rape dozens of women in a close-knit community, year after year, undetected. And you can appreciate this smart novel of ideas while also wanting to know how the women might have felt about this profound and intimate betrayal even before they started talking. A wry novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will and, above all, forgiveness. JENNIFER REESE is a book critic who has reviewed for The Washington Post, NPR, Slate and Entertainment Weekly.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 14, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* They have to meet in secret, and time is tight. They are grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters in the Molotschna Colony, a Mennonite community in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking country. These girls and women have been attacked and raped. The bishop declared it the work of ghosts and demons and suggested that the women were being punished for their sins. Or perhaps they'd just imagined it, injuries notwithstanding. But the truth has finally emerged: the rapists are colony men. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who snuck into the women's rooms at night, drugged them with an animal anesthetic, and beat and raped them, even assaulting a three-year-old girl. The women are traumatized and afflicted by a sexually transmitted disease (there's no medicine to treat it), forced pregnancies, and the suicide of one rape victim's mother. Some men are in jail; others are in town raising their bail. The women have been given an ultimatum: forgive the rapists and go to heaven, or forfeit salvation and leave the colony, the only world they know. Eight courageous women gather clandestinely in a hayloft to decide their future. Canadian author Toews, whose six previous best-selling novels include All My Puny Sorrows (2014), grew up in a Mennonite community, and Mennonite life permeates her fiction. This sharp blade of a novel was inspired by actual events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Although their way of life, with horses and buggies, creates the ambience of several centuries past, the assaults took place between 2005 and 2009, making them all the more appalling. Toews' eviscerating fictionalization of this incendiary reality focuses not on the violence but, rather, on the keen, subversive intelligence of the Mennonite women, their philosophical casts of mind, clashing personalities, and deep concerns about family and faith. Toews' choice of narrator is also counterintuitive. August Epp is the colony's schoolteacher. The son of progressive, excommunicated parents, he has returned after a rather disastrous stay in London because of his love for Ona, one of the brave rebels meeting in the hayloft to discuss their options. While the colony's men mock August as effeminate, the women trust him so much they've asked him to take minutes so that there will be a record of their debate. The women's predicament is complicated by the fact that they speak Plautdietsch, a medieval language now only known to Mennonites, and they cannot read or write. But they are incisive, eloquent, passionate, and caustically funny. August can hardly keep up with their nuanced yet rapidly deployed arguments, insults, jokes, stories, and analyses of the possible consequences of their difficult choices. Temperamental and generational differences emerge, as do degrees of fury, pain, and determination. The women talk, one man listens, and readers read wide-eyed as Toews' dissenters confront the fact that they don't actually know what's in the Bible, only what the men tell them it says. Still, they fully intend to remain true to their faith, unlike the men, including the sect's vow of pacifism. And one of their priorities going forward is securing the freedom to think. Toews' knowing wit and grasp of dire subjects aligns her with Margaret Atwood, while her novel's slicing concision and nearly Socratic dialogue has the impact of a courtroom drama or a Greek tragedy, which brings to mind Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling (2011). Novels loosely linked thematically include The Break (2018), by Katherena Vermette; Haven's Wake, by Ladette Randolph (2013); Prayers for the Stolen (2014), by Jennifer Clement; and In the Kingdom of Men (2012), by Kim Barnes, whose memoirs address an isolating Pentecostal upbringing. Women talking has always been potentially revolutionary. Women are now speaking out about sexual assault and the code of shamed silence in its wake to an unprecedented degree, yet such agonized disclosures continue to be dismissed as the products of female imagination, a contemporary variation on "hysteria." Toews' clarifying novel will help further dismantle the toxic habits of sexism.--Donna Seaman Copyright 2018 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
After more than 300 women in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna were attacked between 2005 and 2009, eight of the settlement's women, from the Loewen and Friesen families, gather secretly to discuss their plan of action in this powerful novel by Toews (All My Puny Sorrows). They believed that the nightly attacks were by ghosts and demons until a man was caught and named other perpetrators; then the women realized that the victims were drugged and raped by men from their community. The Friesens want to stay and fight the men, and the Loewens want to leave Molotschna altogether; the rest of the women in the colony decide to do nothing and skip the clandestine meetings. Schoolteacher August Epp-who takes the minutes of the meetings for the women, since they are illiterate, and is trusted by them because he's been ostracized by the community's men-tracks every conversation leading to the women's final decision. Through Epp, Toews has found a way to add lightness and humor to the deeply upsetting and terrifying narrative while weaving in Epp's own distressing backstory. Epp's observations (such as those about how the women physically react or respond when someone shares a divisive suggestion) are astute, and through him readers are able to see how carefully and intentionally the women think through their lifechanging decision-critically discussing their roles in society, their love for their families and religion, and their hopes and desires for the future. This is an inspiring and unforgettable novel. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
While the men of the isolated Mennonite colony of Molotschna are away, eight women convene in a hayloft. Seated atop overturned milk pails, they debate the ethics of fleeing with their children: for years, a group of local men--some of them relatives--have sedated scores of women and girls with a veterinary anesthetic, then raped them. The victims are obliged to publicly forgive their attackers; even now, the "unwelcome visitors" are being bailed out and fetched back home. Hindered by illiteracy, the women enlist teacher August Epp to record the discussion for posterity. MatthewEdison poignantly narrates the women's voices as witnessed by August, who, like them, ranks as a lesser being and endures blame for others' sins. Unlike the women, August possesses both wider-world experience and mastery of English; yet, as Edison's tone of affectionate respect conveys, he cherishes their achievement--fostering astute Socratic dialog despite a lifetime of intellectual repression. VERDICT Penned by Toews (All My Puny Sorrows) in response to the real-life "ghost rapes" of the Manitoba colony in Bolivia, this deeply affecting story will attract readers interested in the MeToo movement, The Handmaid's Tale, religious communities, true crime accounts, insular societies, and character-driven fiction Highly recommended.--Linda Sappenfield, Round Rock P.L., TX
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Review by Kirkus Book Review
An exquisite critique of patriarchal culture from the author of All My Puny Sorrows (2014).The Molotschna Colony is a fundamentalist Mennonite community in South America. For a period of years, almost all the women and girls have awakened to find themselves bloodied and bruised, with no memories of what might have happened in the night. At first, they assumed that, in their weakness, they were attracting demons to their beds. Then they learn that, in fact, they have been drugged and raped repeatedly by men of the colony. It's only when one woman, Salome, attacks the accused that outside authorities are calledfor the men's protection. While the rest of the men are away in the city, arranging for bail, a group of women gather to decide how they will live after this monstrous betrayal. The title means what it says: This novel is an account of two days of discussion, and it is riveting and revelatory. The cast of characters is small, confined to two families, but it includes teenage girls and grandmothers and an assortment of women in between. The youngest form an almost indistinguishable dyad, but the others emerge from the formlessness their culture tries to enforce through behavior, dress, and hairstyle as real and vividly compelling characters. Shocked by the abuse they have endured at the hands of the men to whom they are supposed to entrust not only their bodies, but also their souls, these women embark on a conversation that encompasses all the big questions of Christian theology and Western philosophya ladies-only Council of Nicea, Plato's Symposium with instant coffee instead of wine. This surely is not the first time that these women are thinking for themselves, but it might be the first time they are questioning the male-dominated system that endangered them and their children, and it is clearly the first time they are working through the practical ramifications of what they know and what they truly believe. It's true that the narrator is a man, but that's of necessity. These women are illiterate and therefore incapable of recording their thoughts without his sympathetic assistance.Stunningly original and altogether arresting. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.