When I bought the paperback, the bookseller at the counter told me that this Miriam Toews’ novel was the best thing to have been written in the past five years. He even gave me an extra stamp on my loyalty card to prove the point. Such was his enthusiasm, I believed him wholeheartedly.
Elfrieda (Elf) and Yolandi (Yoli) are sisters, raised in a loving family. Elf is married and has a successful career as a concert pianist. Yoli has two children by two different men, is in the process of divorcing one of them and tries to earn a living by writing. Despite their differences, they are close, with shared, happy memories. But Elf is not happy now, in fact she is ‘weary of life’ and wants to die. She has made several unsuccessful suicide attempts and is in hospital recovering from the last one. Elf wants Yoli to help her get it right next time, to help her to die. The narrative focuses in the main upon Yoli’s life amidst visits to her sister’s bedside, with flashbacks to their earlier lives, as Yoli grapples with the dilemma of assisting Elf’s suicide.
I have read that ‘All My Puny Sorrows‘ is based upon Toews’ personal experiences, even though it is a fictional work. My problem was that the book just didn’t sustain my interest; if it had been a long article in a Sunday newspaper supplement, I would have read it and enjoyed it, but as an entire novel I found it unsatisfying. There are lots of humorous moments, many of which would make fantastic soundbites – however a successful book is more than a jigsaw puzzle of quotes. I also find myself irritated by novels which don’t use speech marks; whilst dialogue and action are simultaneous in real life, I find it difficult to follow when they are not delineated on the page.
In its defence, I feel obliged to say that this novel won the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It was also shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2015 Folio Prize for Literature, and the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize. It was longlisted for the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Lots of people, including the lovely guy in Waterstones, clearly rate the book very highly, but it just didn’t work for me. Even though I really, really wanted it to.