Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Irma Voth
I was rejoicing silently in my heart. I had asked a good question. And not only had I finally asked a good question, I had asked a good question of someone I was trying to be friends with as opposed to myself. A question that had breath attached to it, that had left my own body. Jorge told me not to ask questions, he hated them, he could always tell when I was about to ask one and he'd put his hand up and say no, please. Please. Was I betraying Jorge by asking a good question of Wilson?

Mennonite Irma Voth had been kicked out of her home by her father when she fell in love with and married a Mexican man named Jorge. Her father arranged for them to stay in a nearby house, but Jorge was to work for him for free. A year later though, Jorge is tired of Irma and the whole arrangement and leaves. Around the same time, a film crew moves into another house nearby to shoot a movie about Mennonites. Irma's father isn't happy about it, and is especially angry when Irma herself chooses to work for the film director. Soon, Irma's sister Aggie has also left home and wants to stay with Irma. One thing leads to another and Irma's father decides that Irma has to move out of her house and find her own stay. But Irma decides enough is enough and flees her home along with her sister, and tries to manage this new independent life.

I first read a Miriam Toews book - The Flying Troutmans - couple of years ago. That book dealt with a dysfunctional family, which was beginning to fall apart. There were elements of loneliness, sadness, family bonding and escapism lacing the book, and yet despite the heavy issues, the book was a quick read and funny at times. I don't remember feeling the urge to cry as I was reading the book, instead I felt a kind of closeness with the characters - the closeness you feel when you identify with the characters because they remind you of yourself when you hit the doldrums or felt aimless at any point in life. It was the kind of quirky sadness that everyone hits at some point - not a despairing sadness but more the-need-to-reconnect-with-self kind of sadness.

Miriam Toews
Irma Voth has the same elements. Although it's been two years since I read The Flying Troutmans, I could quickly see similarities between the two books. Both stories are as different as can be, but both tackle the same basic questions of a person's tendency towards flight in difficult situations, and how family can both be the bond holding them together and the wedge driving them apart. The characters are as usual dysfunctional and very human. Although Irma is the protagonist and the narrator, most of the secondary characters are well fleshed and lend their dynamic presence to the book. The Mennonite beliefs and ways of life was another big presence in this book. Although I was new to this denomination and reluctant to read anything with a huge religious element in it, I loved how easily and sometimes-hilariously Miriam Toews (a Mennonite herself) painted a vivid picture of the people of this faith.

As with The Flying Troutmans, I loved several of the characters that pass through the book - there are Irma and Aggie themselves, sisters, trusting each other, and yet always arguing with each other. There is the Russian-origin German actress, Marijke, who has her own huge baggage of issues that she drags all the way to the Mexican town, where the film crew is staying. The director, Diego, alternates between enthusiasm for shooting the movie and frustration at all the inevitable issues that crop up, both within the crew and from outside. When Irma works as the translator between Diego and Marijke, she easily feeds her own hilarious lines for Marijke to speak at each shoot. Then there are a whole host of minor characters - each one quirky enough during their brief appearances and whole enough to make those brief appearances memorable.

The second half of the book is set in an entirely different setting from the first. While the first half focused on the film crew, which served as the backdrop against which Irma’s family's dynamics played out, the second half was set in Mexico City, where Irma and her two sisters try to make their life work, away from their parents. Although Irma’s father is shown mostly as an adamant, over-protective and strongly principled man in the first half, we begin to see other shades of his personality in the latter half, through Irma’s eyes. Since Irma is rarely honest with herself and doesn't discuss what is bothering her, it takes a while before the reader catches on. There's a very ohmygodly bomb dropped in the second half that I never saw coming and made me feel overwhelmingly sad.

In classic Miriam Toews' style, the prose is quick and easy to read. Even though there is a lot of sadness and humor, the author doesn't infuse those sentiments heavily into her writing. The feelings of the characters are never discussed - the book is a first-person account written from the perspective of Irma, and yet, Irma rarely ever says if she is feeling happy or sad due to something. She only talks of what she is doing, or what someone else is doing - people's emotions aren't the principal focus. Miriam lets the characters' actions demonstrate the inner state of their minds. This is an interesting mode of writing because a character's behavior can be interpreted in so many ways or can be too complicated for a reader to analyze in the few seconds he/she reads that passage, but this works wonderfully here because there is no ambiguity in the meanings of what any character does.

Irma Voth is just as much a favorite of mine now as The Flying Troutmans is. Before starting this read, I was somewhat worried about how much this book will measure up to the successful image the other book has formed in my mind. But when I started and eventually finished it, I was thrilled that this book worked. It felt like revisiting an old favorite - and this has made me eager to check out her other books, and especially the book she wrote about her father, Swing Low.

I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


22 comments:

zibilee said...

It sounds like this book had a little bit of everything, and I have long been very curious about the Mennonites. I like what you have inferred about this book, and think that the themes that are tackled sound interesting and intriguing. It also seems that I really need to check out The Flying Troutmans. Excellent review, Aths. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one!

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

It's interesting that characters' emotions aren't written about, but it sounds like it works well.  I'll have to look for this book.

Helen Murdoch said...

I hadn't heard of this one, but it sounds interesting. I don't know anything about Mennonites be have noticed it cropping up in a number of book titles lately

Nadia said...

I'm about to start this one, so I'm glad I read your post for it. Sounds like its going to be an interesting read .

softdrink said...

I'm glad to hear that this one worked for you. I've enjoyed her other books, so I'll have to be on the lookout for this one.

Lenasledgesblog.com said...

Great review. Sound interesting. Glad it was a good read. Thanks for sharing.

Meg @ write meg! said...

How funny to see your review today! I'd never heard of The Flying Troutmans until coming across a copy in our company break room at lunch this afternoon. I read the first few pages while waiting for my meal to heat up and plucked it from our "take a book, leave a book" stack. Sounds like I need to spend some time with it -- and this one!

Bibliophilebythesea said...

This sounds like a worthy read Aths, and fortunately I own an ARC. Thanks for sharing with us, as by what you've said, I bet I would enjoy this one.

HeatherTLC said...

I'm so glad this book lived up to your expectations! It doesn't sound like anything I've read before, and I'm intrigued.  Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Erin said...

I just finished Swing Low, my first experience with Toews's books, and thought it was quite good. I'm interested now to read some of her others!

Amy said...

I didn't remember what other books Miriam Toews wrote but as soon as I saw The Flying Troutman's title in your review, I knew why this author's name seemd familiar.  Unfortunately, I haven't read Troutman's yet, either so now I have 2 books by Miriam Toews that I want to read!  The element of Irma Voth that speaks to me is the characters. I love good, well-developed human characters. The characters in this book sound terrific - real, dysfunctional, quirky, sometimes funny. I also like that the Mennonite faith is part of the story because I'm not familiar with it and would like to know more. It also sounds like Miriam Toews, Mennonite herself, writes about her faith with humor and doesn't lecture from a soap box or cram it down your throat, perfect.!
Thank you for a wonderful review which I enjoyed very much!

Athira / Aths said...

I definitely thought this book was well-done despite it being a fast read. There's really a hidden melancholy through the pages. Miriam Toews is an author I would recommend.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you enjoy it! I am pretty impressed with how the characters' actions are enough to tell the story.

Athira / Aths said...

I knew nothing about Mennonites either, and I try to stay away from the light books I have recently seen with the word Mennonite in the title. But this book did real justice. 

Athira / Aths said...

I read your review - I'm so glad that you liked it!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you enjoy this one! I need to read her other books that I haven't yet.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome!

Athira / Aths said...

You should! I hope you enjoy Flying Troutmans - I really enjoyed the read! 

Athira / Aths said...

I can't wait to hear your thoughts! I hope you enjoy it!

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks for having me on the tour! I really enjoyed this read!

Athira / Aths said...

I'm waiting for my copy of Swing Low, and I'm glad to hear that you liked it! You should try out her other books - they are good!

Athira / Aths said...

Miriam Toews writes wonderfully about her characters. They are flawed and very human, which is what I like about them. I liked Flying Troutmans even more, and can't wait to read her book called Swing Low! I hope you enjoy her books!