Women Talking is just that, a book about women talking, it is also so much more. Between 2005-2009 women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia were drugged and raped by a group of men in their colony, Women Talking is inspired by these events, and imagines a secret meeting between eight women and one man (their note taker, and our narrator) in a barn on the colony where they debate their options. Do they stay and fight or leave their home?
What is remarkable about this book is Toews’ ability to present multiple nuanced arguments for both staying and leaving, and never fully force us to pick one. She allows her reader space to understand the many sides without asking us to make the ultimate value judgement on what is right and wrong. What is the thing that must be done. Which, in a piece about rape and violation, seems like the most obvious choice, but going against that impulse is what keeps Women Talking interesting instead of predictable. She gives her characters the contradiction we so often resist in ourselves and those around us. She gives her characters the permission to be right and wrong in the same breath.
Toews is a professional writer, and it shows in the book. Her use of craft and nuance and the patience within the story make for an emotional (if not anxious) read. You’re never quite sure where she is taking you. She infuses Women Talking with the humor that is real and truthful in the face of trauma, but she does not shy away from the brutal unexpected pain that is also true when one is faced with the realization that they never have been, nor never will be safe. She complicates all of this by giving us a male narrator who is non-threat to the women. He is an interpreter for us and for the women, it is a layer that is practical and provoking.
Women Talking feels like a long conversation, a debate, a back and forth that never fully settles. Mostly this feels intentional, but there is a part of the book that feels safe in the unanswerable questions. Toews allows her readers to come to their own thoughts, but that also allows the reader to hide in their own biases. It is easy to be on the side of the women in the story, and it is easy to say these acts are heinous, but there is never a true call to respond, there is never a true call to react. Women Talking lacks the potency to make a point that feels somewhere out of reach. I am not sure what the take away from this story was, perhaps just that pain is part of life and we must carry on and find the joy in these things. Or maybe, that we all have the power to make choices for ourselves. These messages are true, but not particularly potent or urgent in this moment, or in the scope of the story.
Overall I enjoyed reading this book though I felt slightly underwhelmed when it was all said and done. I loved reading Toews’ story and her thinking and sensing her mulling over the questions she was asking through her characters. I’m not sure if she, or we, or they, every get to the answers, and perhaps none of us ever will.
Click here to hear Miriam Toews on The Short Stacks discussing Women Talking and more.
- Hardcover: 240
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (April 2, 2019)
- 3/5 stars
- Buy Women Talking Amazon or IndieBound
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