Fiction — print. McSweeney’s, 2014. 330 pgs. Library copy.
Raised in a Mennonite household haunted by remembers of religious persecution in Russia, Elfrieda and Yolandi are expected to conform to particular expectations for their life and live in a community where people gossip and whisper about the nonconformists. Elfrieda, known as Elf to her family, is a progeny at the piano offering her an opportunity to escape from the insular community and her sister, known as Yoli, an example of someone who is able to leave and live a glamorous, wealthy, and happy life.
Twenty years or so later, Yoli’s life has dissolved into a mess — two teenage children who are distant and moody, a divorce, existence near the poverty line — and the happiness in Elf’s life is evident only at the surface because, like their father, Elf wishes to end her life. Still struggling to cope with her father’s suicide, Yoli is trying to do everything in her power to keep her sister hospitalized and alive but must eventually decide which course of action is most appropriate for her sister.
Toews’ book was largely favored to win the 2014 Giller Prize; The Globe and Mail‘s infographic on the 2014 shortlist stated that nineteen members of their thirty member panel selected Toews’ novel as the winner. I can clearly see why it was so heavily favored given the topic as the moral and ethical dilemma of suicide, particularly assisted suicide, can be explored in a myriad of complex, logical, and emotional ways.
Yet I found Toews’ exploration failed to incite much of an emotional reaction on my part. She sets the characters up to have this complex religious upbringing only to largely drop their history as the story progresses. The lack of insight into the characters and their largely inauthentic responses was not something I expected after learning the book is semi-autobiographical.
Primarily, I think I struggled with the book because the reader’s understanding of Elf is filtered through her sister making it difficult to truly view Elf or, for that matter, Yoli as separate characters as they each come to terms with Elf’s desire to commit suicide. There seems to be no reason for Elf’s suicidal tendencies because Yoli does not believe anything can explain her sister’s severe depression. In other words, her “green eyed monster” attitude towards her sister’s life seems to color not only her interactions with her sister but her willingness to understand Elf’s mental health.
There also isn’t much of a narrative structure to this book as it jumps from past to present within chapters. The past is meant to explain the present; the present continues on in a series of mundane activities with Elf’s suicides interrupting Yoli’s tortuous hatred for her own life. I rarely find novels written in steam of consciousness work for me and this novel was no exception.
It’s too bad this book didn’t connect with you. I saw it as a way for the author to work out her emotions and put them into a story. I don’t think we need to know the characters’ complete back story to understand what is happening with them now. Also, I think that the fact that there seems to be no reason for Elf’s depression is part of the point. Mental illness can seem like a mystery to those of us who don’t suffer from it. Yoli can’t understand it, but does that mean it isn’t real and agonizing for Elf? And the inner conflict of what to do for a loved one who wants to die comes through clearly and painfully. Knowing this was partly autobiographical made this book even more powerful for me. Maybe you would prefer her nonfiction account of her father’s struggle with depression, Swing Low. I haven’t read it yet, but it is on my list.
I do not normally need the complete back story but Yoli sets herself and her sister up to be such a contradiction — Yoli’s life is falling apart, Elf’s life is perfect — that I felt there must be something missing from the story to help explain these two characters better.
But a nonfiction account might work better for me and not suffer from the same distance as this fictional account. I mean, I felt as though she was struggle to reconstruct her feelings in the mindset of another person so I might do better with the nonfiction account.
This book was getting rave reviews in the Sunday Times. I liked the hip narrative style a lot, but oh goodness I found it depressing. I would read more by this writer, though.
I also saw all the rave reviews and cannot reconcile their view with my own. The Shadow Giller jury also seemed to be puzzled by all the positive responses, but I’m glad its inclusion by the (real) Giller jury is at least getting people to discuss the topic.
I’m still on the fence if I would read more by her. Naomi’s comment above, though, has me intrigued with her nonfiction.