Women Talking by Miriam Toews is loosely based on real events that happened in a Mennonite colony in the early 2000s. In that way, I want to classify it as historical fiction, and yet 2009 seems to near to be considered “historical;” instead I’ve filed it under Feminist Fiction—which also feels weird, considering it’s narrated by a man… Let’s just say, I don’t really know how to classify this book.
The whole of the novel is summarized in the title; it is quite literally a bunch of women talking. The women in question are part of a Mennonite colony and are the victims of heinous physical and sexual assaults that had been passed off as “demon attacks.” Unable to read or write, they ask August Epp, a man who is an outsider in the colony, to transcribe their discourse as they decide the most correct course of action to take.
I’ll start with the good. If you like ethics, the discussion will be very interesting. For each option, the women discus the religious, moral, and ethical ramifications. While I have seen reviews that complain the women are “too rational” in their thinkings, I think it is befitting a strict upbringing such as in a Mennonite society (disclaimer, I’ve never met a Mennonite). I think this would be a great book in an ethics class. It’s definitely very heavy on the philosophy of right and wrong.
There are three major issues with the book, and they’re so big they overshadow everything!
A Man Narrating
When I first picked the book, I noticed reviews complaining that a man was narrating and thought those reviewers were taking feminism too far. Within the first few pages its made clear that the women can’t speak the native tongue of the country they’re in, but that they also can’t read or write. August, our narrator, is there to translate their words to paper. For much of the book I thought this was to be presented to the men at some point or perhaps given to someone outside the colony, so it made sense.
However, most of the time August interjects his own thoughts into the narrative—in fact we learn quite a lot about his family and his backstory through his dictation. At one point, the women ask him a question and he writes at length about how he feels about being asked the question. He goes so far as to tell us he put the pen down to answer the question. By the time he tells us what his answer is, I’ve forgotten the question. It was around this time that I began to agree that using him as a narrator was a weird choice. Considering how un-meeting-minute-like the book reads, the author could have easily made one of the women the narrator and just mentioned August was taking notes.
The Book is Boring
The only reason I finished this book is because it’s such a short read. A book of this size would normally take me an afternoon to finish, but this one took me 4 days! Because I gave up on a lot of books last year, I resolved to see more books through til the end this year. As such, I felt compelled to finish not because I actually cared what happened next but because I didn’t want to add another book to the “did not finish” self.
Much of the conversation is repetitive and not much was done to differentiate the characters. I often forgot who was who and who was related to who. Aside from Salome being a bit feisty, there really wasn’t much distinction. This makes it hard to really get in to the book.
Spoiler alert, but absolutely nothing happens. The women make up their minds what they will do and there is a brief scare that they have been found out, but aside from them carrying out their plan in the final pages, it is just them sitting in the barn talking. They spend a great deal of time discussing the unknowns if they leave the colony, as well as the knowns if they stay, but we never see either of these. We don’t even see the reaction of the men to their decision (though that may be a subliminal message about their reactions not mattering).
Imagine I start a story telling you I have two pair of shoes: one pair is yellow and will take me to a mythical land where unicorns and mermaids exists, while the other pair is orange and will take me to any time on Earth I’d like visit. I spend 200 pages discussing which pair I wanted to wear and then on last page I reveal my decision, but never tell you what happens after…
This book wasn’t for me; I think engaging with the questions the women ask (e.g., are we animals?) might be interesting in a group setting but not as a solo read. It did do two things for me though:
- Made me aware of a horrible tragedy that happened while I was in college
- Made me more curious about the link between fundamentalism, cults, and abuse of women—look for more posts on that soon.
- “Women Talking | Official Trailer”. MGM, via YouTube; visited February 2023