Women Talking
Grade : A-

Miriam Toews’ Women Talking is based on a real incident which involved the secret, systematic assault of women in a Mennonite community, but what makes this book stand out is its premise. The women of the Molotschna community get together to decide on a course of action and to carry it out. And for the first time, they critically examine the restrictions they always accepted, and their responsibilities towards themselves as well as towards their menfolk and their God.

The story begins after the horrific crime perpetrated on these women is exposed. Morning after morning, the women wake bruised, bloodied and in pain, but they are told this is due to either overactive female imaginations or demonic attacks. Then, finally, one of them discovers the truth. A number of men in the community have been drugging the women and raping them at night. When one woman, whose three-year-old daughter now has an STD, attacks the rapists with a scythe, they’re jailed in town for their own protection. But now most of the men have gone to the town to bail them out, which leaves the women to their own devices.

Ona Friesen, a spinster who’s pregnant because of the rapes, asks the schoolteacher, August Epp, to write down the details of the womens’ discussion to preserve as a record for history (and the reason she has to ask a man to do this is because girls in their community aren’t taught to read and write). August Epp is almost as much of an outcast as the women, since he’s not a farmer and his family was once excommunicated because he bore a striking resemblance to the former bishop. Now, he does his best to be a neutral observer as the women divide into two factions – the ones who want to stay and change things somehow, and the ones who want to leave.

Each alternative is incredibly risky. One of the women, Mariche, was abused by her husband even before the organized rapes began, and it’s very clear that men like her husband can’t be reasoned with. But leaving? The women don’t know anything about the world outside their community (though August offers to obtain a map, how useful will this be to someone completely illiterate?), and they don’t speak the language of the country they live in (they speak Low German instead, to set them apart from the world). But as Salome, the mother of three-year-old Miep, points out, if she remains in the community, she’ll want to do something to her daughter’s rapists that will keep her out of the kingdom of heaven.

The women critically thinking about their religious faith is another aspect of the book I enjoyed very much. They acknowledge that they’re supposed to be submissive and forgiving. Especially forgiving. The bishop, in whose barn the knockout drug was discovered, stresses that the women need to forgive the men. But as the women talk it over, they wonder if forgiveness, when extended to people who haven’t even asked for it, might be mistaken for permission. And they realize that they don’t know what the Bible says on the topic because they’ve never read the Bible for themselves. They’ve only been told what it says by the men, who naturally have an interest in keeping the women obedient.

All the discussion takes time, though, and the women only have two days in which to come to a consensus. After that, the men will return. Even before the deadline, the tension spikes when Mariche’s monster of a husband comes back early to get more livestock to sell for bail money, and the women have to claim this is a quilting bee (naturally, the women make quilts but the men sell them). I couldn’t wait to find out what happened in the end.

The characters are fascinating as well. Ona is kind and sensitive, but she’s stigmatized in the community because of her “Narfa”, or nerves, a supposed mental illness. August doesn’t belong in either the men’s sphere or the women’s world. Melvin, a trans teenage boy, only speaks to children now. Years of domestic abuse have left Mariche abrasive and angry, and her mother Greta has poorly-fitted dentures because during her rape, her attacker punched her in the mouth, breaking her teeth. It’s heartbreaking, and yet it’s hopeful as well, to see how the women slowly come to understand and support each other. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters are linked not by the trauma inflicted on them, but by their joining to overcome it. And I appreciated the realism here. These women are taking their first steps into freedom, not trying to overthrow the patriarchy, and the story acknowledges that some women don’t want to do anything, which is their choice.

She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.

The only reason this book didn’t get a higher grade is because it’s told entirely from August Epp’s perspective. For a novel titled Women Talking, I would have liked to see more of the women’s points of view. But that’s a minor quibble, and I’m glad I read this thoughtful, hard-hitting book.

Reviewed by Marian Perera

Grade: A-

Book Type: Women's Fiction

Sensuality: N/A

Review Date : October 29, 2023

Publication Date: 04/2019

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Recent Comments …

  1. Thank you . I read the free sample and the nonsense you expound on above was sufficiently grating to me…

  2. I was Shane when l was 10 ye old l love the theme song what a thing between Shane and…

  3. This is on sale today for $1.99 You can shop for it using the AAR link https://www.amazon.com/?&linkCode=ll2&tag=allaboutromance&linkId=65de0a5258814b1bf11d6ba02ea21d19&language=en_US&ref_=as_li_ss_tl

Marian Perera

I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.
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