By Miriam Toews
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I think it’s time to have a granular conversation about what it means to ‘like a book’.
The problem is, when someone says that they like a book, they might mean any number of things, alone or in combination.
They might mean that they think that the book represents a technical achievement, that it demonstrates skill or creativity. They might mean that it moved them, that they resonated with something being expressed, or that something of the events being portrayed in the book felt particularly real to them. Or they might have meant that it was super fun, or funny, or exciting, or whatever.
This is why you can “like” Stephen King’s ‘The Stand‘ and “like” Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago‘; those are both true statements that mean totally different things.
And it’s also why we give a sort of extra credit to books that achieve multiple of these ends, books that are fun and humane, or skillful and entertaining. We recognize that we like them in multiple ways, that they have landed points in multiple categories.
But if you can like a book in more than one way at once, it means that it is also possible to like a book in one way and really not like it at the same time, in a totally different way. To like it along one of these axes, and to dislike it, potentially strongly, along another.
Which is how I feel about ‘Women Talking‘.
A little backstory is relevant here.
There is a substantial Mennonite population in Bolivia. In the late aughts, women in the Manitoba Mennonite colony started waking up in the mornings in pain, covered in blood and semen, with rope burns around their wrists. They were told they were imagining it, that they were dreaming, that they were consorting with the devil in their sleep.
Eventually, it was discovered that a group of men in the colony had aerosolized a horse anesthetic and had been spraying it into houses while families were asleep. They were then breaking into the houses and raping the women. Over several years, it is estimated that they raped hundreds of women – eventually, 130 victims were identified, ranging from ages 3 to 60. The men were turned over to the Bolivian authorities, tried, and have been convicted of multiple counts of rape and assault.
This is a true story – these things really happened.
‘Women Talking‘ is the novelization of one very specific part of this story: the experience of the women.
The men of the Molotschna (a fictional Manitoba) have left the colony to post bail for the rapists. They have done this so that the guilty men can come back to the colony and be forgiven by their victims. Without this forgiveness, neither the men, nor the women they raped, will be able to get into heaven.
Two families of women, three generations each, have gathered in a loft while their men are away in order to discuss what to do. Half of them want to leave, to take their children and flee, run to safety.
The other half want to stay and fight.
Because the women of Molotschna cannot write, they ask August Epp, a former apostate who has returned to teach the children, to write down what they say. August is not a man, not by the standards of the colony, since he has no wife and no children and cannot farm. But he is not a woman, no matter how much he may sympathize with, or love, them. He can only listen, and record, and try to help.
‘Women Talking‘ is a tough read. It’s kind of a brutal read, actually.
Not in the way you’d expect, or, at least, not in the way I expected. I was prepared to grapple with the horror of what was done to the women (in real life, never forgetting that), but that’s not what ‘Women Talking‘ is about. Not exclusively.
The first thing that the women of Molotschna have to settle among themselves is whether they are people, the way the men are, or whether they are animals, the way the men treat them. It’s a matter of some debate between them, whether they are animals or not. It is not obvious.
This is where the brutality of ‘Women Talking‘ really lies: in the fact that what has happened to the women is the inevitable result of their living in a system which teaches them, and the men around them, that they are not people. That when women are literal objects, the men around them will treat them like objects.
It’s hard, as a woman, to read a novel about women trying to see their way to their own personhood. Trying to decide whether it is better to stay in a place where they are raped in their homes at night, where their young daughters will be raped in their beds, or to leave their homes, their husbands, their sons, and set out into a world they don’t understand, where they don’t speak the language. It’s hard, as a woman, to imagine having to make that choice yourself.
It’s a desperate choice, and desperate choices are hard to read about.
It’s also…a little boring to read about.
I know I’m not supposed to say that about a novel about rape. And I know that I’m really not supposed to say that about anything called ‘Women Talking’. And I would like to assure everyone that I feel the appropriate amount of respect and feminist appreciation for ‘Women Talking‘, which is stark and singular and effective and, at moments, really deft and lovely and humane.
But, because of the way that ‘Women Talking’ is written, it’s also sort of…arduous. Let me give you an example:
“Ona speaks: If it has been decided by the elders and the bishop of Molotschna that we women don’t require counseling following these attacks because we weren’t conscious when they happened, then what are we obliged, or even able, to forgive? Something that didn’t happen? Something that we are unable to understand? And what does that mean more broadly? If we don’t know “the world,” we won’t be corrupted by it? If we don’t know that we are imprisoned then we are free?
…Greta Loewan sighs heavily. She says that although we may not be animals we have been treated worse than animals, and that in fact Molotschna animals are safer than Molotschna women, and better cared for.
Agata Friesen reminds Greta that, due to issues of time, we have agreed to abandon the question of whether the women are animals are not.” (p. 39)
It doesn’t exactly zip along, does it?
Look, it’s not supposed to, that’s clear. ‘Women Talking‘ isn’t trying to be the snappy, feel-good book of the year, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. But it did often seem as though ‘Women Talking’ was trying to be deliberately plodding.
Which, OK, I can think of reasons why an author might try to make their book deliberately plodding: she might be trying to show how overwhelmed the women are, disoriented and building a world-view from scratch, for example. To show that, when you must remake your whole self, your progress is slow, is plodding, when you start from nothing. That is a worthy project.
But a project may be worthy and still excruciating to read. And because ‘Women Talking‘ was slightly excruciating to read, I had trouble actually caring about any of the women in it. And it feels as though connecting with what happened to these women (again, can’t say it enough: in real life) was maybe the point? Or at least would have been good?
‘Women Talking‘ is clearly the work of a capable author, and I’m sure that Toew’s stylistic choices are choices. I appreciated ‘Women Talking’, but I didn’t like it.
Or, rather, I liked it the way you like things which are hard and important, but which you secretly dread having to consume. I liked it in the way of worthy things, not in the way of joyful things. In the way of sheer, awful truths, and not beauty.
But it is true, and for that reason alone, it should be read. A novel needn’t be beautiful, if it’s true.