By Miriam Toews
Between 2005 and 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to “wild female imagination.” In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious.
This real-life horror story inspired Miriam Toews’s scorching sixth novel, “Women Talking,” set in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna, where nearly every girl and woman has been raped. But don’t expect a crime novel full of detail about the assaults, and don’t expect an excavation of the survivors’ emotional experience. Toews skips over the rapes and the apprehension of the rapists, cutting straight to existential questions facing the women in the aftermath. “Women Talking” is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will, collective responsibility, cultural determinism and, above all, forgiveness. As Agata Friesen, an unflappable matriarch, puts it: “Let’s talk about our sadness after we have nailed down our plan.”
They don’t have a lot of time. The men of Molotschna have traveled to town to bail the rapists out of jail. Should the women still be there when the men return? In a mouse-infested hayloft, sitting on overturned milk buckets, the women drink instant coffee, joke, smoke, weep, endure bouts of morning sickness (one of the women was impregnated by an “unwelcome visitor,” as the colony’s male elders call the rapists) and debate what a better future might look like.
[ Read our profile of Miriam Toews. ]
The narrator is the local schoolteacher, August Epp, who grew up Mennonite and speaks Plautdietsch, but also lived for many years outside the community. The women recruit him to take minutes at their meetings because they can’t read or write; they trust him because he is, as one woman says, “an effeminate man who is unable to properly till a field or eviscerate a hog.” In other words, harmless. Like his introspective fourth-century namesake, August was once paralyzed by guilt over stealing some pears, and he’s prone to extravagant bouts of self-loathing. When August broods on his own sorrows, the novel sags. When he transcribes what these angry women say to one another, it crackles.