Women Talking

By Miriam Toews

Bloomsbury. 240 pp. $24

Reviewed by Ron Charles

The true crime at the center of Miriam Toews’ novel is unspeakable. It sounds like something from the Middle Ages or a dystopia by Margaret Atwood.

But, in fact, these horrors took place only a decade ago in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For several years, more than 100 women and girls woke up in the morning bruised and sore, lying in their own blood. Strictly isolated in this patriarchal religious community, the women were told they must be imagining things or that evil spirits were punishing them for their sins. But finally the truth came out: At least eight men had been using a veterinary sedative intended for cows to knock out whole families and then rape the women and girls — some as young as 3 years old.

The leaders of the Manitoba colony intended at first to handle this horrendous crime themselves, but the Bolivian government eventually became involved, and the rapists were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Toews brings an unusual perspective to her fictional treatment of this atrocity. A Canadian author, she was raised by Mennonites, an experience that informed her brilliant 2004 novel, A Complicated Kindness. Although she has long since left the church, she understands the contours of the Mennonites’ exceptionally private faith, and she also knows the ills that can fester in such hermetically sealed communities.

But Toews has no interest in exploiting this crime for dramatic purposes. Crucially, Women Talking opens after the attacks have been exposed and outside authorities have become involved. The entire novel takes place during a brief two-day window when the leaders of the colony have taken their animals into town to raise money to bail out the rapists, whom they insist on referring to as “unwelcome visitors.” During this period, eight women gather in a hayloft to decide what they should do next. They are all victims — and mothers or daughters of victims — and they are all related in some way to the men who violated them.

The community’s leader has decreed that the women must forgive their attackers or forfeit their own salvation. For people who take religious authority and spiritual salvation seriously, this is a formidable challenge, which Toews conveys with all due solemnity. In the opening pages of the novel, her eight female characters have arrived at three options:

1. Do Nothing.

2. Stay and Fight.

3. Leave.

Of course, each of these choices is dangerous, as any victim of sexual assault knows, but the situation is particularly fraught for these women, who are illiterate, possess no property, and have no knowledge of the world outside their community. They know only farming and what they have been told is in the Bible. Is that enough to determine how they should respond to this extraordinary situation? They have roughly 24 hours before the men return and block their escape.

This is fiction as deliberation, and yet it feels packed with drama – and a deeply sympathetic understanding of the way women talk, a subject that has drawn the attention of scholars as diverse as Luce Irigaray and Deborah Tannen. “We must love,” one of the women insists, but how can that imperative be fulfilled in the face of such abuse?

Yes, these eight brave women disagree, even caustically sometimes, but they also listen and forgive and move on as they constantly circle around the question at hand, define their terms, and challenge their assumptions. Sitting in a barn as the light fades, they have taken on nothing less than deconstructing the patriarchal strictures of their church while somehow retaining their faith. It is literally a matter of life and death and afterlife.

As their conversation evolves, we get to know these eight women, particularly Salome, who announces she might “shoot each man in the heart and bury them in a pit.” That response is understandable but anathema to these pacifists, particularly Salome’s sister, Ona, an otherworldly young woman ignored and dismissed for her strange personality. Ona challenges others in the group to create a revolutionary manifesto to lead them forward toward “a new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love.” To her peers, such a proposal sounds foolhardy or worse. “Ona is thought to have lost her fear — which is akin, for colonists, to having lost one’s moral compass and then transformed into a demon.”

Though Toews remains frustratingly unknown in the United States, she has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors. The compressed structure of Women Talking makes it unlike her earlier novels, but once again she draws us into the lives of obscure people and makes their survival feel as crucial and precarious as our own.

Ron Charles reviews books for the Washington Post.