I recently read a novel that was so compelling, I think it’s been permanently etched into my mind and heart. It moved and disturbed me in equal measures and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. That book is Women Talking by Miriam Toews.
*Content/ Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault
Women Talking is a fictional response to the horrific real-life events that occurred in a remote Bolivian Mennonite colony between 2005 and 2009, in which more than 100 women and girls were repeatedly drugged and sexually assaulted by men in their community.
The book focuses on eight illiterate women in a colony called Molotschna. In the aftermath of the rapes, following the rapists’ arrests, the men of Molotschna travel to the city and attempt to bail the eight perpetrators out of jail. The women secretly gather in a hayloft to discuss their response to these awful events. They have only two days to do this before the men return home, at which point the women will be asked to forgive the rapists (in order to guarantee their places in heaven) or leave the colony. One of the women asks August Epp, Molotschna’s schoolteacher, to record minutes of their meetings in the hayloft. They have three options: do nothing, stay and fight or leave.
The novel begins with a note from the author, which gives it some context. The book’s narrator, August Epp, then introduces himself and shares his backstory. His parents were excommunicated from Molotschna when he was a child and he has recently returned to the colony. He’s something of an outsider in the community and seen as effeminate by others. However, he shows much respect and compassion towards the women, being their only male ally. Toews seamlessly weaves August’s anecdotes and thoughts into the narrative as he tells the story through his minutes. His anecdotes aren’t always relevant but I liked reading them. It adds just enough texture to the story without overshadowing the voices of the women.
I enjoyed the pacing of this novel and felt engaged throughout. It’s not a plot-driven story. As the title suggests, it’s literally about a group of women talking. They talk in an attempt to process their emotions and figure out how to best protect themselves and their children. I often paused while reading to ponder several of the points they raised during their discussions. Toews’ ability to make me question myself and agree, then disagree with certain characters within minutes. The women leave no stone unturned during these meetings. They explore each option in-depth and try to anticipate every obstacle that may occur. Understandably, they contradict themselves and each other multiple times and often go around in circles.
What I found most interesting were the moments that they discussed their faith, God and forgiveness, and whether it’s even possible to protect themselves and their children from this kind of abuse in future. The women always considered the implications of their faith in every decision. One of my favourite moments in the book includes their conversation regarding where the younger boys fit in all of this. For instance, should the women take the younger boys with them if they decide to leave the colony? Do 13 and 14-year-old boys pose a threat to the women? This, in my opinion, is where August Epp makes some of his most valuable contributions to their meetings.
All the characters felt complex and convincing. These women made me laugh multiple times. They’re intelligent in their own ways and well aware of the incredibly patriarchal environment and structure they exist in. They also remained logical and level-headed throughout their discussions, which I thought was impressive, given the circumstances. August Epp is very likeable and I became more fond of him as I progressed through the book. I struggled a bit with the characterisation in Women Talking. I often couldn’t distinguish one woman from another and kept referring back to a page at the start of the book to remind myself who was who.
One character that stood out to me almost immediately was Ona, August’s childhood friend. It is clear from his minutes that he’s in love with her. Completely smitten. He tends to marvel at Ona’s gestures and almost everything she says, basically. Ona feels like a beacon of hope in the book. She is extremely kind and her unwavering optimism is admirable. In comparison, her younger sister Salome – another stand-out character for me – is understandably full of rage. Although the women mostly talk about what has happened to them, we also learn about them and their lives in Molotschna as they talk, just as we learn about August and his life. In the final quarter of the novel, I had a better idea of who was who.
August Epp telling the story through his meeting minutes is incredibly effective. This novel stirred a range of emotions in me including sadness, frustration, rage and disbelief. Women Talking isn’t an easy novel to read but it’s a necessary one. I’d highly recommend this book to readers of Margaret Atwood. If you enjoy women’s fiction and novels with a dystopian and/or feminist feel, you’ll want to pick up this book.
As an ex-Mennonite herself, there was arguably no better writer to tell this story than Miriam Toews. Her writing is thoughtful, dark at times but also funnier than I expected. Women Talking is a beautifully written, thought-provoking and moving novel that people of all gender identities, religious beliefs, backgrounds and cultures should read.
4 out of 5 stars.
Women Talking is published by Faber & Faber and can be purchased from Amazon and all good bookshops.