Summary: Living as a Mennonite in Mexico, Irma Voth is a young, married nineteen year-old who lives with her husband on the farm adjacent to her parents’ farm. Her husband, Jorge, is a native Mexican and an outsider to the Mennonite community and when he leaves Irma she doesn’t know what to do with herself. A local filmmaker comes to the farming community with a vision and hires Irma to translate between him and his star actress. As Irma entangles herself with the outsiders, her father’s anger grows, spilling over onto Aggie, her younger sister, until Irma must take action to protect her. But protection comes in the form of going on the run with Aggie and her newborn sister Ximena, forcing Irma out of her somewhat scatterbrained ways into a position of responsibility. As she gains distance from her family of origin, Irma is finally able to face long-held secrets and acknowledge the truth and consequences of her decisions.
Number of Pages: 255
Age Range: 17-18
Review: Miriam Toews makes me want to be a better writer.
It’s because she’s subtle. I started out confused by Irma’s actions, wanting her to have some strength and spunk when she often seemed limp and scattered. Toews’ story is one that builds gently and the use of the first person narrative keeps her reader in the dark as things are revealed only when Irma is ready to face them. When the truth of Irma and Aggie’s home life comes to light it’s a revelation except the clues were there all along. Irma herself blossoms once she gets out from her father’s shadow into the sun.
Some might wonder why I consider Irma Voth a teen book but Toews’ story contains a scene I think explains it perfectly. Marijke, the actress, states she is stuck at fourteen because of something traumatic that happened to her and for Irma, though she doesn’t initially realise it, it’s the same. She’s stuck as a teen, under her father’s thumb, even when she falls in love, gets married and moves out. It doesn’t matter that she continues to age because she is stuck in that moment in time until she confronts her memories and decisions. By the end of the book, she is an adult but at the beginning, even at nineteen, she’s still in many ways a child. In that sense it’s a coming-of-age book which is a well-loved teen theme.
There are moments of exquisite writing and stunning character development. While it took me some time to get into Irma’s viewpoint, I ended up respecting her and gaining insight into why she was the way she was. There were little aspects I loved such as Toews’ prophetic name choices: pure Aggie and her painfully honest paintings, as well as Ximena, the listener, who seems to embody the conflict of their parents and even as a baby is a bit of a hell-raiser.
Mostly I just loved the whole story as an observation of the roles of trauma and truth. This review is by no means exhaustive as once again I felt the limitations of reading a book in day. Instead, Irma Voth is a book for my reread list, so I have another chance to catch parts I missed the first time around. I agree with other reviewers that Toews deserves to be considered a classic Canadian writer and I would recommend her book for older teen readers and Canadian Literature courses.
“With flowers You write, said Wilson,
O giver of Life,
With songs You give colour,
with songs You shade
those who must live on the earth.
Later you will destroy eagles and ocelots;
We live only in Your book of painting,
here, on the earth.” – Wilson from Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, page 93
“Sometimes I feel like my life is an invention, she said.
Well, I said, sometimes the only way I know I’m alive is when I feel pain in my chest, because there’s no pain in heaven.” – Conversation between Marijke and Irma from Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, page 110
“One minute you’re jumping in the sparkly waves for the first time in your life and completely unable to stop laughing and the next you’re shedding the useless lining of your uterus and smearing messages in blood in porcelain bowls and sandy beaches. Words of shame like I’m sorry about this mess and the smell and I don’t know why the hell I’m crying on such a beautiful summer day.” – Irma from Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, pages 156-157
“Really? said Noehmi. Why do you have her?
I don’t know, I said.
Did your parents die? said Noehmi.
No, I said. I was beginning to understand something I couldn’t articulate. It was a jazzy feeling in my chest, a fluttering, a kind of buzzing in my brain. Warmth. Life. The circulation of blood. Sanguinity. I don’t know. I understood the enormous risk of telling the truth, how the telling could result in every level of hell reigning down on you, your skin scorched to the bone and then bone to ash and then nothing but a lingering odour of shame and decomposition, but now I was also beginning to understand the new and alien feeling of taking the risk and having the person on the other end of the telling, the listener, say:
Bad shit at home? You guys are running away?
Yeah, I said.
I understand, said Noehmi.” – Conversation between Noehmi and Irma from Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, page 171
“What do you mean wasted? I asked her. She said they were on another plane. She read something out loud to me from her book: Katherine compared the energy of trauma to a cobalt bomb with a radioactive half-life of one hundred years. I asked her what that meant and she said she didn’t know exactly but that she loved the way it sounded. She thought maybe it meant that every trauma presents a choice: paralysis or the psychic energy to move forward.” – Conversation between Irma and Noehmi from Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, page 175
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, (2011).