WOMEN TALKING, by Miriam Toews. Bloomsbury, 216 pp., $24.
Although the novel is titled “Women Talking,” it is a man that speaks the opening line — “My name is August Epp” — and he will narrate the next 216 pages. This is because the women of the novel, eight members of the Mennonite colony of Molotschna in Ukraine, cannot read or write. They have assembled in a hayloft and asked Epp, a sympathetic schoolteacher, to record the minutes of their meeting. They are the players in this drama; he their scribe.
Why are they meeting? “Since 2005,” Epp explains, "nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins.” The demons, in fact, are eight men of the colony, who sprayed an animal anesthetic on the sleeping women before committing their unspeakable crimes. Having learned the truth, the women must now determine their course of action.
This is the setup of Miriam Toews’ astonishing new novel, her seventh, and it is based, she writes in a prefatory note, on actual events that occurred at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia between 2005 and 2009. The crimes themselves are not the focus here, though the few details Toews dispenses are chilling: many wake from the attacks groggy and bleeding; one is impregnated and gives birth prematurely; a young child suffers from venereal disease; an old woman has her teeth smashed.
Instead, “Women Talking” charts the painstakingly elaborate discussion among these eight characters as they ponder three choices: “1. Do Nothing. 2. Stay and Fight. 3. Leave.” The male bishop of the colony has taught them that they must forgive their trespassers in order to “enter the gates of heaven,” yet the women recognize that “coerced" forgiveness is not be true forgiveness. “And isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive?”
Before the 48 hours of this conclave are up, the women talking will alight on many subjects: pacifism, patriarchy, moral responsibility, the nature of evil. They’ll debate the use of dynamite to open a safe and retrieve the money within. The result is something between a feminist consciousness-raising session and a prison escape plot.
All of this is serious stuff, but Toews injects a wry humor into these pages, a reflection of her characters and their outlook on life, at once earnest and ironic. One smokes clandestinely, then brazenly; one mimes swigging from a flask, suggesting drunkenness, as another goes off on a rant; one tries out an English swear word but manages to use it incorrectly. (“So much of what exists in the outside world is kept out of Molotschna, but curses, like pain, always find a way in,” Epp observes.)
In a more traditional novel, these characters would be fully fleshed out; here they are sketched lightly: Salome, the angry firebrand; Greta, the eldest, who “exudes a deep melancholic dignity”; Ona, the unmarried oddball whom August is not so secretly in love with. Yet the circumstances are so extraordinary and the dialogue so riveting, that you keep reading to see what the women decide and how they decide it.
At one juncture in “Women Talking,” the characters enter into an argument about the uses of metaphor, after Ona quotes from Virgil and her mother breaks in, “My love, we’re plotting to save our lives right now, so —” But as Ona understands, metaphor may be one way of grappling with and gaining perspective on their dire situation.
“Did you know,” Ona says, as they contemplate the prospect of leaving Molotschna without so much as a map or an iota of book learning between them, “that the migration period of butterflies and dragonflies is so long that it is often only the grandchildren who arrive at the intended destination?” You leave a novel about violence and misogyny lifted up by the women and strangely hopeful.