Irma Voth, Irma Voth. I don't know what to make of you.You are: novel-screenplay-movie-painting-photograph.
You contain: tragedy-comedy-subtlety-boldness- aggressiveness- guilt- extravagance- outrageousness -courageousness.
Your style is: quiet-still-annoying-beautiful-haunting-moving.
You remind me of: Lemony Snicket, Samuel Beckett, French New Wave Cinema, and other Miriam Toews novels.
What do I do with you?
Where do I put you on my shelf?
Miriam Toews' new novel, Irma Voth, is about Mennonites in Mexico. It is about Irma as she disentangles herself from her strict father and her silent mother. It is about guilt and forgiveness. It is about a Mexican art movie Irma becomes involved with, and it is about her teenage sister, Aggie, and her baby sister, Ximena.
Mennonites, Mexico, Movies and Women = Irma Voth.
When Irma is just a teenager her Mennonite family mysteriously and quickly moves from Canada to Mexico. At eighteen, Irma marries a Mexican, Jorge, and her father kicks her out of the house. Jorge disappears. Irma moves down the dusty road to her cousins' deserted house. A film crew moves in next door and begins making a movie about Mennonites in Mexico. Irma is hired to be the translator for the German actress:
He told me that it didn't really matter what the actors were saying because nobody watching the film would understand the language anyway. It wasn't really German that they'd be speaking, it was Low German, which is the unwritten language of the Mennonite people and hardly used in the world anymore. And besides, he said, there will be subtitles.
A good deal of Irma Voth takes place around the filming of the movie. It's a low budget art movie with great sweeping landscape shots, directors waiting for the rain, locals acting in parts when and if they appear for the shooting. Comical and sad, beautiful and dull, these scenes evoke feelings, emotions and memories in Irma. While the movie is created, Irma grows up and takes note of her life. At one point the director hands her a notebook and Irma spends the novel writing in it, using pen and paper to solve the questions she has about life, Mennonite culture, who she is and where she wants to go.
The novel picks up towards the middle when Irma needs to get her sister, Aggie, out of the house. Their father has become even more aggressive than usual, and, because he really does not like girls, Aggie, Irma and their new baby sister, Ximena (who reminds me of the baby, Sunny, in the Lemony Snicket books - always biting people), flee to Mexica City. They build a life for themselves there with the help of many kind people.
This novel is also about family secrets and Irma's eventual realization that the world is not only black or white. "YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO DIE!" becomes her motto, a motto she plays with in a pleasing way:
YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO DIE!....I scratched out the word DIE and wrote LIVE. Then that seemed cheesy and too uncooly emphatic so I added the words SORT OF. AT LEAST TRY. Even that seemed bossy so I added, in parentheses, a joke: OR DIE TRYING.
Miriam Toews' previous novels walked the line between adult and young adult fiction. Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, and The Flying Troutmans were huge hits with all ages. Toews' dry wit, her endearing characters, her ability to write about emotional discovery without being sappy, struck a universal chord. Irma Voth contains all of this--humour, loveable characters who find themselves--but it is slower and more contemplative, it is more subtle and a bit darker than her other books.
There is the distinct whiff of guilt throughout Irma Voth. The protagonist searches endlessly for forgiveness. Leaving her family and her Mennonite culture, trying to make it on her own, Irma has the overwhelmingly constant need to go back to where it all began and be forgiven for all manner of sins. She comes to realize that forgiveness begins with herself. When that happens she can then ask to be forgiven by her family. Toews compares the complexity of human relationships to "the incomprehensible noises of different animals attempting to communicate with each other in the dark." This novel is a more adult book; it contains more sadness.
Miriam Toews grew up Mennonite in Steinbach, Manitoba. She left her family to attend university and presently lives in Toronto. In her memoir, Swing Low: A Life," written in 2000, Toews writes from the point of view of her manic-depressive father prior to his suicide in 1998. Toews is deeply familiar with conservative Mennonite culture and feelings of guilt over leaving it. She works what must be her reality into all of her fiction.
Toews may be a type of Irma Voth--a woman using her creativity to come to grips with her past and present. Irma says,
I decided to go out and spy on my family from the roof of their grain shed. I could see directly into their large room. I thought about throwing myself off the roof of the grain shed and onto the roof of the outdoor kitchen which they're not using now and lying there, dead, for months, invisible but toxic. I wondered how long it would take them to find me. Then I remembered that they wouldn't be looking.... I had one question of myself: how do I preserve my dignity when nobody else is watching? By believing in a happy ending, I told myself.
Four years ago, Miriam Toews herself starred in Stellet Licht (Silent Night), a highly regarded Mexican art film directed by Carlos Reygadas. She played the role of Esther, the wife of a Mennonite man who settled in Mexico in 1922. It is obvious that Miriam Toews used what she saw when filming this movie in Irma Voth. But she didn't merely take from the experience; she used her skills to create in another beautiful art form.
Irma Voth is_______. You fill in the blank. Read the book.
Written by Michelle Berry for
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