It seems ironic that a work so concerned with the female voice should be written from a man’s perspective. But this is the contradiction that sits at the heart of Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, and it neatly illustrates the plight of her characters.
The story takes place in a remote Mennonite Christian community. Here, the women quilt, milk cows, and give birth to families of 10 or 15 children. The men tend the land, learn to read and handle the money. It is a world built on patriarchy, though the women have no direct translation for the concept.
In this particular colony, called Molotschna, that structure has exposed its dark underbelly. Just before the novel begins, it is discovered that a group of men have been drugging and violently raping the women and girls of the village.
While the rest of the men are in the city posting bail for the accused, Molotschna’s women vote on what they should do before their attackers return.
Torn between leaving and fighting, the women appoint eight of their own to come to a final decision. Being illiterate, the women rely on August, a school master and son of excommunicated Mennonites to record the meeting. It is from his perspective that we listen in on the Biblical, practical and emotional concerns of the eight women as they use the best tool at their disposal: talking.
By putting the narrative in August’s hands, Toews highlights the contradiction of the status these women have.
The characters are aware of their own limitations, which means they must rely on August to read a map for them, or on their husbands to interpret the Bible. But as they talk, their own capabilities also become clearer. The younger ones use their sexual power over men to further the women’s mission, while the others utilise their knowledge of the colony or skills with animals. Slowly, a plan comes together.
The way the women work together despite their limitations is likely to appeal to the current appetite for stories of resistance. Perhaps it is because of Trump, or the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV. Whatever it is, we now don’t just want to see oppressed women enduring their circumstances; we want to see them fighting against them.
Women Talking has clearly been packaged to sit alongside these stories on the shelves, with an endorsement from Margaret Atwood taking pride of place on the back cover. Readers searching for something that gets to the heart of women’s pain without turning its characters into empty vessels for it will not be disappointed.
For me, the strength of the book lies in the realness of the women. It is difficult at first to distinguish them all from each other, but Toews slowly fleshes out each person, including their flaws as well as their more admirable traits. It reminds us that the victims of horrendous crimes are not defined by their experiences. These women still bicker with each other, sing together, smoke and drink coffee. They survive.
What unites them all is that they have decided doing nothing is not an option. Their meeting in itself then becomes an act of rebellion, with talking framed as a weapon. When one of the husbands returns to find them in the barn, they quickly fabricate an excuse about quilting to hide that they have been talking.
This is hardly surprising when it is talking in “whispers, fragments of whispers” that first leads them to discover the attacks, and to dismantle trust in the colony’s leader, who had insisted they were being visited by devils to punish them for sins.
It is a shame therefore that the dialogue has a couple of weaker moments. It drifts too many times into a hypothetical discussion of morality, as though the author is exploring the idea for herself on the page. Conversely the best moments are when we as readers feel like we have been allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation.
These often occur when we are suddenly reminded of the severity of the attacks. August casually supplies details about the suicides of fellow Molotschna residents, or explains that Greta has no teeth because they were crushed by her attacker. These visceral moments are jolting, but they bring the reader right into the scene, forcing us to contemplate what we would do in the same situation.
They also remind us of the real events on which the story is based. Toews calls the work an “imagined response” to a case of serial rapes in a Mennonite colony during the late noughties. While Women Talking falls firmly into fiction, it is an exploration of issues faced by real women both inside and outside of religious communities. It is also a reminder of what can happen when they choose to use their voices.
Published by Faber & Faber, 2018.
Words by Alys Key.