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29 August 2014updated 03 Sep 2014 9:18am

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.

By Jane Shilling

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.”

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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. 

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