All My Puny Sorrows

All good

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews (Knopf), 321 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN

Voice. It’s something writers crave, something that makes their work unique and recognizable. And Miriam Toews has it.

Hers has an irresistible tragi-comic timbre that’s particularly effective when dealing with personal pain and death, the subjects of her new novel, All My Puny Sorrows.

Beautiful, brilliant, talented concert pianist Yoli wants to die. Her younger sister Elf, a writer who considers herself ordinary by comparison, desperately wants her to live and tries hard to change Yoli’s perspective. Thing is, you can’t talk someone out of depression.

Toews expertly depicts Yoli’s struggle and Elf’s sad helplessness. Their conversations exquisitely convey both their connectedness and the terrible gulf between them.

But they aren’t the only vivid characters here. Their mother, a woman with impressive emotional reserves who’s already weathered her husband’s suicide, is remarkably irreverent given that she’s a Mennonite. Toews has mined the richness of that community before.

The book pursues the theme of the redemptive power of art as Elf tries to finish a manuscript she carries around in a plastic bag, while Yoli remains uninspired by the gorgeous music she can toss off almost effortlessly. And Toews is plainly mindful of the ways the medical establishment discriminates against the mentally ill: Yoli gets little sympathy from hospital staff.

But it’s Toews’s way of lightening the darkness that makes this novel so compelling. Elf is flat-out funny even if she is in a permanent state of distress over her sister’s condition.

Very few writers have this much control over tone.

Toews reads from All My Puny Sorrows on Wednesday (April 30) at Harbourfront. See Readings, this page. | @susangcole

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