Book No 28 (2015) : All My Puny Sorrows

puny sorrowsWhen 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.

Book No 22 (2014) : The View on the Way Down

The-view-on-the-way-downRebecca Wait’s debut work explores the impact of depression and suicide. Having suffered a nervous breakdown herself, the author felt compelled to try and make sense of her illness by writing about it: She explains in the Afterword that ‘The novel was born out of darkness, but also out of relief and joy’.

Kit, Jamie and Emma are siblings; their parents are Joe and Rose. Following Kit’s death, Jamie has left home to live in Sheffield, where he is working in a bookshop. The circumstances surrounding his estrangement from his family are gradually revealed throughout the narrative. Being the only child at home with Joe and Rose, coupled with the bullying she suffers at school and insecurities about her weight, cause 14 year-old Emma to run away from home. She seeks out Jamie, bringing about the beginning of a rapprochement between him and the rest of the family. But this is not a fairy-tale reunion, as Kit’s death continues to cast its long shadows over all their lives.

I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life and although the condition is largely well-controlled nowadays, in the past I’ve found myself standing on the edge of the abyss. For this reason, Kit’s turmoil did resonate with me at some level, as did Emma’s alienation from her peers. However, Emma was a most unconvincing 15-year old. As the (proud) mother of a teenage daughter of the same age, I am well aware of the language and pre-occupations of girls of that age. They don’t generally include milkshakes, or making board games. Emma came across as a 9/10 year old and totally unbelievable as a result.

Much has been made of the fact that Rebecca Wait is only 24 years old. I’m sorry to have to say that I think this shows. I found her characters to be somewhat lacking; their emotional depth could have been plumbed more deeply. For me, the book lacked profundity and the naïve style did little to shed light on its dark subject matter. Like a flat stone on a lake, The View on the Way Down merely skimmed across the surface.

skimming stone