All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews

Triggers: suicide.

Our church pastor once accused Elf of luxuriating in the afflictions of her own wanton emotions to which she responded, bowing low with an extravagant sweep of her arm, mea culpa m’lord.

You know by now that there are no book reviews on this blog without some mental illness involved. Elf is Elfrieda, whose tale is told by younger sister Yoli (Yolandi). The formula feels familiar at first; concerned and codependent narrator lives anxiously and vicariously through some plot and context. The style and content, however, stand out and shine. Poetry abounds; the title is Coleridge and there are things like …

Elf told me that after the poet Shelley drowned, his body was cremated right there on the beach but his heart didn’t burn so his wife Mary kept it in a small silk bag in her desk.

This one has bonus Mennonites (rebel Christians with some Amish tendencies) and it’s really well written. It’s also Canadian. I generally like Canadian Lit.


Elf rebels and becomes a world class concert pianist, a career interrupted by psychiatric illness, and hospital.

I tell her I could read to her the way she used to read to me when I was sick. She would read Shelley and Blake, her poet lovers she called them, mimicking their voices, male and British, clearing her throat … “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples.” The sun is warm, the sky is clear, the waves are dancing fast and bright. How about I sing? Or I could dance. Like a wave. I could whistle. I could do impersonations. I could stand on my head. I could read Heidegger’s Being and Time to her. In German. Anything! What’s that thing again, that word?

Dasein, whispers Elf. She half smiles. Being there.

Isn’t that utterly, achingly, beautifully tragic? Or perhaps simply brutally painful. Also, horrifically accurate. The author is unflinching, knows exactly what she’s writing about and she does so with enormous grace.

She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other

No spoilers! No more great quotes! Go download/buy/begborrowsteal the book.

It’s main theme, despite appearances to the contrary, is not suicide, but love and it is a thing of extraordinary beauty and sorrow. It is a whole lot about suicide though, so avoid it if the subject would be wrong for you.

Read it soon and come back and tell me what you thought and felt.


Published by


battlescarred, bright, bewildered, bent, blue & bipolar

9 thoughts on “All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews”

  1. Darl,

    If l could browse, read or even listen to the news as fast as you, l would be beaming all my remaining damn life.
    Glad to read your posts always, my blahpedia of preference and reference. :-)


    1. I really am! Well deserved. I am looking forward to your review of it and also hearing about that panel discussion. And all of the wordfest :)


      1. Finished All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness in the last two weeks. Over two thirds through The Flying Troutmans. Miriam Toews sure has a distinctive set of themes that have appeared through her novels. I am living in the area of Canada that she is from and appears as the setting in her books—so they have been interesting reads on so many levels. Keep up the reviews!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s so good to ‘meet’ another fan – also, how cool that you’re living right there. If you blog, please drop me a link so that I can get to know you and your environment a little better. And if you trip over Ms Toews, feel free to mail her to me – I have a little crush :)


  2. Random question: Where did you get the photo of the ‘Mennonites’? That group of people are actually Church of God (Reformation–I believe) which is not Mennonite at all. Just curious because I know some of the people in that photo. :) Stumbled across your blog because I am deciding which Miriam Toews book I want to read next.

    Liked by 1 person

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