Courtney reviews Women Talking by Miriam Toews
from the publisher:
"One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm. While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women-all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in-have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they've ever known or should they dare to escape? Based on real events and told through the "minutes" of the women's all-female symposium, Toews's masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide."
If you’ve read—or watched—The Handmaid’s Tale, you know it depicts a dystopian world in which basic human rights, especially those of women, are severely curtailed. Margaret Atwood has said that the world of The Handmaid’s Tale was entirely built by extrapolating real-world occurrences and trends, which undoubtedly lends a factual feel to a mostly speculative work.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking, by Miriam Toews, tells a story about women struggling to survive in a patriarchal society. But Women Talking is based on a single, real-world event: the drugging and raping of hundreds of Mennonite women from the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia. The attacks took place from 2005 to 2009, but, despite the conviction and imprisonment of eight men from the colony, similar assaults in the community were reported in 2013. Like Atwood, Toews is Canadian, but she is also a lapsed Mennonite, raised in the province for which the Bolivian colony was named. The news of the crimes led Toews to write Women Talking, which she calls “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.”
Rather than recreating the crimes, Women Talking imagines the Mennonite women’s responses. Over two days, while most of the colony’s men are away, eight members of two families meet in a hayloft to discuss their choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The women, being illiterate, are unable to document their meeting, so they ask August Epp to record the minutes. August is a schoolteacher who has returned to the colony after many years, having left as a child when his parents were excommunicated. He describes his years away, as well as some of his reactions to what the women say during their meeting, but the majority of the story is, just as the title says, women talking.
The emphasis on dialogue, along with the (mostly) single setting, makes Women Talking often feel like a play—a play during which the women sing hymns, braid hair, smoke, care for their children, and argue about how to proceed. How can they leave the colony when they know nothing of the outside world? How will they go anywhere without knowing how to read a map? How can they reconcile their response to the attacks with their faith?
Women Talking is thoughtful, moving, and even funny, with memorable characters and an unusual premise based in shocking fact.
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