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.-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I heard Miriam Toews read from this novel at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival last year. The balance between despair and humour appealed to me and lured me in. (I listened to the
All My Puny Sorrows is about two Canadian Mennonite sisters and is narrated by the younger sister,Yolandi (Yoli), a writer of rodeo-themed books for young readers. Her older sister, Elfrieda (Elf), is a world-renowned concert pianist who tours Europe. Their father killed himself some years ago as did a young cousin. We know early on that Elf wants to die, that she has made suicide attempts and that she will eventually succeed in her quest to end it all just as their father did.
Yoli lives in Toronto with her two children from two failed marriages. When Elf makes another suicide attempt Yoli returns to Winnipeg, their hometown where Elf is a patient in a hospital's psychiatric unit to be with the sister she adores and to help their mother care for her. Through the course of the book Yoli tries to keep her family together and to keep Elf alive. She reminds Elf of all she has to live for: her talent, a happy marriage and a loving extended family but she knows that will never be enough and it breaks Yoli's heart. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Eventually Yoli comes to the realization that Elf does not want to live, that she will never want to live and that the best thing she can do for her sister might be to take her to a clinic in Switzerland to die. She rolls that idea around but does not act, although given more time she might have.
Toews acknowledges the parallels between her life and Yoli's. Her own father committed suicide as did her sister, Marjorie, both by stepping in front of trains. Marjorie, like Elf, begged her sister to take her to Switzerland so she could die, but not alone. This is the novel Toews had to write and a wonderful one it is. It is intimate, it is humourous, it is tragic.