The author of Women Talking (2018) lets a 9-year-old girl have her say.
The first thing to know about this novel is that it’s narrated by a child writing to her father, who seems to have abandoned her and her pregnant mother. The novel-as-long-letter can often feel gimmicky, it’s difficult to craft a child’s voice that is both authentic and compelling, and it would not be unreasonable for readers to be wary of a book that attempts both. Readers familiar with Toews, however, may guess—correctly—that she’s quite capable of meeting the formal challenges she’s set for herself. “Mom is afraid of losing her mind and killing herself but Grandma says she’s nowhere near losing her mind and killing herself.” This is Swiv talking. “Grandpa and Auntie Momo killed themselves, and your dad is somewhere else, those things are true.” This is Swiv’s Grandma talking. “But we’re here! We are all here now.” This exchange captures the central concerns of this charming, open-hearted book. Swiv’s mother—an actor—is a bundle of angst, rage, and stifled ambition. Swiv’s grandmother, on the other hand, is the embodiment of joie de vivre, and it’s Grandma with whom Swiv spends most of her time, filling the roles of caretaker and (sometimes reluctant) accomplice. Grandma is the type of person who befriends everyone she meets and who finds the joy in even the most ridiculous and—to her granddaughter—mortifying experiences. As the novel progresses, we discover that this ebullience isn’t the natural product of a happy life but, rather, the result of a conscious decision to endure terrible loss without becoming hard. We also come to learn why Swiv’s mom is so brittle. And we understand that Grandma, in all her glorious ridiculousness, is showing Swiv that the only way to survive is to love.
Funny and sad and exquisitely tender.