All My Puny Sorrows

I’ve become convinced that all current genius writing is being done by a group of female Canadians. Miriam Toews is yet another bolster to that argument, penning the lyrical tale of a sister’s suicide with wry humor and tenderness. AMPS comes from a line in Coleridge’s poem To A Friend, With An Unfinished Poem:

I, too, a sister had, an only sister —
She loved me dearly, and I doted on her;
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows;
(As a sick patient in a nurse’s arms,)

The narrator is Yolandi/Yoli, a writer and twice-divorced mother of two living in Toronto and approaching 40 years old. Her sister, Elf/Elfreida is a world-renowned concert pianist who lives with her husband Nic in Winnipeg when she’s not touring the globe and delighting adulating fans. The girls grew up in a Mennonite community, where the sons inherit the wealth of the family from generation to generation and the daughters “get sweet fuck all… but whatever, we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows on our drafty homes but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.” Musical instruments were banned by the community but the family didn’t let that stop Elf from practicing, even forcing the church men out of the house as she ravaged them with Rachmaninoff when they came to rebuke her father.
At the beginning, Yoli heads back to Winnipeg to visit Elf in the hospital, recovering from an unsuccessful suicide attempt with pills. Yoli alternates between comforting and raging at her sister, unwinding stories from the old days, telling tales of her current life. Elf fakes recovery and is released, only to be back in intensive care after drinking bleach and slitting her wrists. Now she has trouble speaking (the bleach damaged vocal chords), but scribbles down thoughts and occasionally will speak to Yoli. Meanwhile, their mother arrives back from the cruise they put her on to distract her from these tragedies, and aunt Tina comes to help her, having an accident of her own which leads to open heart surgery from which she dies. When Yoli and her mom travel to aunt Tina’s funeral, she begs the hospital not on any occasion to let Elf out. Despite this, Elf gets a day pass for her birthday, and steps in front of a train while husband is out at the library retrieving books for her. (Their dad also killed himself via train – Yoli stifles an internet search for ‘suicide gene.’)