A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It was the first time that we had sort of articulated our major problem. She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other. (Chapter Three)
I remember the moment I realised that I was suicidal. I was walking to the shops. Nothing was wrong: I had my health, a blossoming career, possibilities. I loved and was loved. I had my faith. I’d suffered depression, yes, for much of my life, but I’d always managed it. And now here I was, walking to the shops along a red tarmac path towards an overpass, and it came to me with all the startling certainty of a divine locution: I do not want to be here. I do not want to be anywhere. I do not want to be.
It wasn’t that I’d never wanted to die before. I had, in brief savage moments, wanted it very much: a petulant reaction, driven by self-loathing, subsiding as quickly as it came. But this was more than wanting. I saw a world without me in it: the utter correctness of it, the redundancy of my being still here. I didn’t want to kill myself, the mechanics of it held no appeal for me, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to die, and make things right.
I was fortunate. Tell someone: that was the watchword of the time. I told someone, several people in fact, and they responded magnificently. I begged a favourite saint for intercession: help me, help me, lift me out of this. And the feeling did pass, but perhaps only because I was never beyond repair in the first place. The black dog has bitten many times since then, but I have never again felt that dreadful calm knowing. I am fortunate.
Elfrieda von Riesen, the focal character of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, is not fortunate. Through the eyes of her sister Yolandi, we see her possessed by the violent and inexorable desire to die. Again, nothing is wrong. Elfrieda is beautiful and talented; she has a flourishing career as a concert pianist; she loves and is loved, strongly, unconditionally. But she is compelled, by something rooted deep in her personal chemistry, to try over and over again to end her own life. Like her gift for music, like her Mennonite background, this compulsion isn’t of her choosing. It doesn’t respond to love or logic. Nobody can talk her out of it.
But people try, of course – how could they not? It would be unthinkable not to try. We stand with Yolandi as she throws the whole of her being into the fight for her sister. We descend with her into the hell of Elfrieda’s involuntary making: that dreadful scared vigilance, the sheer hurt of it, the bewilderment. And then comes the point when Yoli’s own thinking begins to distort, pulled out of shape by the terrible gravity of her sister’s sickness, and we find ourselves horrified witnesses; sympathetic but alarmed, as helpless in the face of her suffering as she is in the face of Elf’s.
Because of Elfrieda’s beauty and ability, this novel could so easily have been one of those stories about mental illness. You know the sort of thing. Tormented-genius stuff, too-good-for-this-world, talent-blighted-by-suffering, isn’t-it-often-the-way. The ultimate tall poppy scenario. But Toews is better than that. There’s no big object lesson here, no final message about religious repression or the cost of individuality, even though both themes are present. There’s no sneaking fetishisation of mental illness, even with the Coleridge leitmotif. Elfrieda’s suicidal impulse does not in itself mark her out as better, finer, more rarefied. She isn’t even the first in her family to suffer it. Her father knelt in front of a train; her cousin threw herself into the Fraser river. If there’s a lesson at work in this book, to my subjective eye it’s that suicide is a plague and that, like all plagues, it is too rapacious and too powerful to be a respecter of persons.
I needn’t tell you that this is not an easy read. (But, really, is an easy read about suicide the sort of thing you want?) There is scarce comfort here, but there is something wonderful in the love that shines through in Yoli’s narrative of her sister. For those who have lost someone and for those who have almost lost themselves, to be reminded of that love – unconditional, all-encompassing and real – is a profound consolation.
Paperback, 336 pp., ISBN 978-0571305285