Funny business: the novelist Miriam Toews. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty
Show Hide image

Funny, defiant and furious: the tangled tale of two sisters

In Miram Toews’s new novel, the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

All My Puny Sorrows 
Miriam Toews
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £12.99

The Girls from Corona del Mar 
Rufi Thorpe
Hutchinson, 256pp, £14.99

“It was my father and my sister who constantly beseeched my mother and me to read more, to find succour for life in books, to soothe our aches and pains with words and more words,” remarks Yolandi (Yoli) Von Riesen, the narrator of Miriam Toews’s new novel, in which the ability of literature to act as an antidote to despair is tested to the limit.

Among the astonishing quantity of books referenced in this most bookish of fictions is Richard Holmes’s memoir Footsteps, which Yoli reads “as though somewhere in its pages are contained the directions to hell’s only exit”. The passage that particularly catches her attention is Holmes’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft: “There was something, I suppose, like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life.”

The description applies with eerie exactness to Yolandi’s beloved elder sister, Elfrieda, who is brilliant, beautiful and broken. Alas, it doesn’t help solve Yolandi’s urgent dilemma: how to answer Elfrieda’s request that Yoli accompany her to Switzerland, where she intends to end her life.

Suicide has become for Elfrieda a desire as compelling as the passion for music that drove her as a rebellious teenager to flee the chilly disapproval of her small Canadian Mennonite community and seek a career as a concert pianist. Now in her forties, she is a celebrity with an international career, a devoted manager and a family that is as determined to prevent her from dying as she is to succeed.

If you were to compare the sisters’ circumstances, it would be Yolandi rather than Elfrieda who might seem the more likely to succumb to depression. By contrast with Elfrieda’s elegant trajectory to private and public success, Yolandi’s life has been a muddled affair. She is large and freckled, rather than small and exquisite. Her eyelashes, unlike Elfrieda’s, are not so long that snow settles on them in winter. She is the author of a not-very-successful series of young adult novels. She has a teenage son, Will, and daughter, Nora, from two failed marriages.

What time she can spare from the exacting process of thwarting Elfrieda’s repeated suicide attempts is spent in a series of unsatisfactory love affairs. It is a life punctuated by small failures; yet through Yoli’s character runs a streak of resilient, mocking optimism that acts as a counter-charm against the urge to self-annihilation that is an ingrained family trait.

Suicide runs in the Von Riesen family. Various cousins took their own lives and Elfrieda’s and Yoli’s father, an idealistic primary school teacher, killed himself by kneeling in front of a train. These are not imagined events. In her previous novels and in an award-winning memoir of her father, Swing Low, Toews has described her childhood in a Canadian Mennonite community and her father’s suicide. Her elder sister, Marj, killed herself in 2010, having asked Miriam to help end her life.

“For me, writing is an act of survival,” Toews has said. Her novel – funny, defiant and, when it comes to the heroic in­difference of the medical staff charged with Elfrieda’s care, furious – is an unsparing anatomy of the battle between the will to live and the will to die. Elfrieda’s musical talent apparently has no power to attach her to life – on the contrary, it seems to enhance her sense of fragility (she shares with King Ludwig I’s daughter Princess Alexandra of Bavaria the conviction that she has a glass piano inside her that may break at any moment). But words represent a “mixed message of hope, reverence, defiance and eternal aloneness”. As a teenager, Elfrieda planned to scrawl “AMP”, representing the words “all my puny sorrows”, a phrase from a poem by Coleridge, on landmarks across town as an act of defiant individualism. Her penultimate act is to ask her husband to fetch her some books from the library. “Books,” thinks Yoli, “are what save us. Books are what don’t save us.”

The theme of salvation by narrative haunts Rufi Thorpe’s debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, a coming-of-age fiction that explores the unequal contest between human will and indifferent fate. Mia and Lorrie Ann are teenagers growing up in the 1990s in the Californian coastal hamlet of Corona del Mar. As the novel begins, Mia seems to be heading for a crash. She is 15 years old and recovering from an abortion, having lost her virginity and become pregnant in the same moment.

Lorrie Ann, by contrast, has all the virtues of a fairy-tale heroine. She is beautiful, clever, nice and – almost unprecedentedly in Corona del Mar – the child of a stable family. “In a way,” Mia reflects, “Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was . . .”

It is the destiny of fairy-tale heroines to suffer and there is something gleeful about the way in which Thorpe sets about heaping misfortune on Lorrie Ann. “It was,” Mia thinks, “like some bizarre postmodern rendition of Job.” From an unplanned pregnancy, which Lorrie Ann virtuously declines to terminate, there extends a grim sequence of catastrophe. While Mia flourishes, her friend suffers a series of lurid mishaps as elaborate and undeserved as the fanciful horrors of 17th-century revenge tragedy.

As in all good fairy tales, there is a slightly improbable ending that offers the possibility, if not of happiness ever after, at least of respite from misfortune. There are signs in Thorpe’s novel of a writer finding her voice: the binary structure is a trifle heavy-handed and the conclusion simplistic. Yet her depiction of female friendship is engaging and sharply observed. Seldom has Schadenfreude been more appetisingly packaged. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.