IRMA VOTH by Miriam Toews (Knopf), 255 pages, $29.95 cloth.
Toews joins the Harbourfront Reading Series on Wednesday (April 6). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Who can blame miriam toews for returning to her Mennonite roots? That strategy produced her breakout novel, A Complicated Kindness, and since then she's had some rich experiences, especially as a film actor, that she now taps to portray a stunning culture clash between the Mennonite and art communities.
Set in Mexico, home of a community of English- and Low German-speaking Mennonites, the story begins just as Irma has been abandoned by her Mexican husband, Jorge. The marriage caused a major rift between Irma and her father, who grudgingly allows her to live in the house down the road as long as she works the family farm.
When filmmaker Diego moves into the area with his crew to make a feature about Mennonites, Irma, who speaks Spanish, is hired as a translator for the film's German-speaking star, Marijke.
Here's an example of the gold you can strike when you write what you know. Toews starred in Carlos Reygadas's visually stunning film Silent Light, also set in a Mexican Mennonite community. Her typically pointed and sparse prose style expertly conveys the tension between the rigidity of that life and the open sensibilities of the director and his team.
Soon, longing for more than milking cows and resisting her relentlessly patriarchal father, Irma starts imagining her own freedom.
There's a small weakness in the narrative when the action moves to Mexico City, where Irma has more luck than seems believable.
But Toews gets the story back under control when Irma finally sees Diego's film - the first time she's ever been in a cinema - an experience that changes her life, and when she unveils a devastating family secret.
The internal conflict over when to reveal hard information, in life or in art, is one of Toews's key themes. A sequence about how it feels to tell the truth is a knockout.
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