SHORTLISTED 2014 – Scotiabank Giller Prize Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life.   You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.   But Elf’s latest suicide attempt is a shock: she is three weeks away from the opening of her highly anticipated international tour. Her long-time agent has been calling and neither Yoli nor Elf’s loving husband knows what to tell him. Can she be nursed back to “health” in time? Does it matter? As the situation becomes ever more complicated, Yoli faces the most terrifying decision of her life.   All My Puny Sorrows, at once tender and unquiet, offers a profound reflection on the limits of love, and the sometimes unimaginable challenges we experience when childhood becomes a new country of adult commitments and responsibilities. In her beautifully rendered new novel, Miriam Toews gives us a startling demonstration of how to carry on with hope and love and the business of living even when grief loads the heart.

Knopf Canada 336 pages

  • Reviews

Steven Buechler

about 6 years ago

The concept of literature to explore the issues around the human condition is an enlightening one. We are surrounded by issues like depression, suicide, dysfunctional families, et cetera, it feels like we are alone in dealing with these problems. But we are not. And when a writer like Miriam Toews writes a book like all my puny sorrows, we are graced with the wisdom that our fights are not in vain. Toews has a frank and simple style here that does more to illuminate societal issues than 100 daytime talk shows and news articles can ever attempt to do. This book is well-crafted and carefully thought out and deserves not be named a "must-read" but also should be nominated for several awards.

Jennifer D.

almost 6 years ago

miriam toews is one of my most favourite writers, and this new novel is fantastic. FANTASTIC! while we are in familiar territory - a mennonite family not quite doing the mennonite thing 'right', according to their small mennonite town; two sisters who want out/better; parents who are present but elsewhere sometimes - toews is just such a great storyteller. her characters are so real, and funny, quirky, and flawed. her story is full of life and full of heartbreak. the messy and the difficult can be tricky terrains for writers to pull off well in their writing, but toews really does it wonderfully. i feel as though this may be her best novel. for 2014, it's definitely my most favourite read, so far. i am feeingl strongly it will sustain for me for a long time to come. YAY!

i haven't collected all of my thoughts yet, but wanted to post something rather than leaving this space blank.

here, a fabulous and revealing review/interview from mark medley in the national post:

and here, the poem from which the title of toews' novel was taken, and which features in the book:

To A Friend, With An Unfinished Poem

Thus far my scanty brain hath built the rhyme
Elaborate and swelling; ­ yet the heart
Not owns it. From thy spirit-breathing powers
I ask not now, my friend! the aiding verse
Tedious to thee, and from thy anxious thought
Of dissonant mood. In fancy (well I know)
From business wand'ring far and local cares,
Thou creepest round a dear-loved sister's bed
With noiseless step, and watchest the faint look,
Soothing each pang with fond solicitude,
And tenderest tones medicinal of love.
I, too, a sister had, an only sister --
She loved me dearly, and I doted on her;
To her I pour'd forth all my puny sorrows;
(As a sick patient in a nurse's arms,)
And of the heart those hidden maladies ­
That e'en from friendship's eye will shrink ashamed.
O! I have waked at midnight, and have wept
Because she was not! ­ Cheerily, dear Charles!
Thou thy best friend shalt cherish many a year;
Such warm presages feel I of high hope!
For not uninterested the dear maid
I've view'd ­ her soul affectionate yet wise,
Her polish'd wit as mild as lambent glories
That play around a sainted infant's head.
He knows (the Spirit that in secret sees,
Of whose omniscient and all-spreading love
Aught to implore were impotence of mind!)
That my mute thoughts are sad before his throne, ­
Prepared, when He his healing ray vouchsafes,
Thanksgiving to pour forth with lifted heart,
And praise him gracious with a brother's joy!

Dec. 1794

[a:Samuel Taylor Colerdige]


as the idea of assisted suicide is a topic that i am interested in, this new article caught my attention, and ties in well with toews' novel. i hope this plea makes it to our supreme court.


16 nov 14: edited to add: this wonderful interview in the LARB:

"Martin Amis once said, “Failure is the story.” That’s always stuck with me. I could have written a book that atoned for my own shortcomings, where I have my character do the right thing. But I thought that would be too … pedantic. And easy. Also it wouldn’t be true to my life. The idea of the uncertainty, the unknowingness, I feel that is a place that the novelist, the poet, and the philosopher can inhabit."


David Yoon

almost 6 years ago

This should be a far more harrowing read. Yolandi is supplanted from her Toronto home to icy Winnipeg after a suicide attempt by her sister, following in the footsteps of their own father who took his own life by stepping in front of a train. Yo is separated from her children including a teenaged daughter relishing her unsupervised freedom and her new Swedish boyfriend - who later calls in to report an infestation of carpenter ants. She’s in the midst of a divorce, questions her less than engaged string of assignations, her stalled career and money woes. Her aunt takes a turn and is soon hospitalized. Hardly sounds like light fare. Even more depressing is the fact that Mirriam Toews lost her own father and only sister to suicide.

But it’s a lovely read and unabashedly Canadian - dropping two-fours, double-doubles, Players Extra Light, Northrope Frye, Margaret Laurence, Neil Young and Nellie McClung. It doesn’t uplift through a notion of “I thought I had it bad” comparisons but rather through the weary optimism we Canadians are known for. The idea of being “as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.”


Beth Mullett

over 5 years ago

This book made me want to laugh out loud one minute and cry the next. Rarely does a book invoke emotions that powerful.