Women Talking by Miriam Toews
You may have already watched the Oscar award-winning movie, Women Talking (2023). If you have yet to read the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, upon which the movie is based. I'm here to encourage you to do so!
Toews' Women Talking (2019) may remind you of a dystopian novel, perhaps The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, based, as it is, on true events so horrible that they are difficult to believe. The events occurred in the twenty-first century, ostensibly from 2005 to 2009, in a Manitoba Mennonite colony that settled in Bolivia. Mennonites, a pacifist Christian denomination founded in the 1500s, have no formal legal system, and the most conservative colonies remain separate from modern society. The leaders of the Manitoba colony intended to handle the terrible crimes committed among their group themselves, but the Bolivian government eventually became involved, and the perpetrators were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
What happened? At least eight of the colony's men used a veterinary sedative intended for cows to knock out whole families and then rape the women and girls for a span of years. When the women awakened, bloody and bruised, they were told they were imagining things, or the victims of evils spirits.
This information is not a spoiler—the book opens after the violations have happened, while the remaining men are off in the city, trying to raise money to bail their "brothers" out of jail. The women, alone, meet in a hayloft to decide how to proceed. The options are three: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. They only have a couple of nights to come to a consensus before the men return with the perpetrators.
Miriam Toews weaves wry humor, life-giving compassion, and nuanced irony into the discussions, and this, along with her stellar prose, makes the story compelling and, once I'd adjusted to the structure and style, very readable, at least for me. The events are translated through the minutes of the meetings, which are transcribed by an estranged member of the colony who happens to be a man. One of the many rewards of the novel is learning why this particular man has been chosen to document what happens, and, in Toews' narrative, share it with readers.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews is a timely and unusual book that moved me deeply and has left me with a lot to think about. I listened to it on audio—if you like audio books, this one is fantastic—and plan to read it again, cover to cover, immediately.