In a hayloft, several women gather, with only a single man present to take notes on their urgent conversation. The subject of discussion: what to do about their situation as residents of a remote colony where, they’ve just learned, the nighttime violations they’ve experienced were the work of not ghosts, but men who drugged them to rape and molest.
It’s a horrific scenario, all the more so because it’s based on truth. In 2011, a group of men from a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were convicted of drugging and abusing well over a hundred community members — mostly women and girls, including very young children, although some men and boys were also raped. The perpetrators sprayed animal anesthetic to render their victims unconscious, and the attacks continued for half a decade.
Miriam Toews’s new novel considers what might have gone through the minds of the colony’s women upon learning the abominable truth behind their symptoms. The book unfolds like a dystopian fiction, and to the very end it’s shocking to imagine that while the specific characters are the author’s inventions, their circumstances are very real and very recent.
While the book grows suspenseful in its final pages, as the women put a plan into action and grapple with its implications, for most of its 240-page length Women Talking is reflective, often philosophical. It’s rich with metaphor, almost to a fault — particularly in the early pages, when we’re anxious to have the scene set and context explained. These are women who’ve essentially lived their lives outside of time, the author seems to be emphasizing. A sense of urgency is foreign to them.
The book, which was published internationally last year and arrives in America on a wave of praise from the likes of Margaret Atwood, considers at length the women’s crisis of faith. Why has God caused His sons to act this way, and what does He expect his daughters to do in response? He commands women to obey their husbands, but He also implores them to protect their children. What are the women to do when those duties come into conflict?
With no quotation marks, Women Talking flows like a stream of consciousness, explained by the fact that the text is ostensibly the verbatim notes of the narrator August, a prodigal son who has his own troubled history to grapple with. Characters gradually emerge — like the outspoken Salome and a pair of spirited teenagers — but the cumulative effect is as if the women of the colony were different voices in a single mind.
To stay, to leave, to fight, to love, to heal, to harm…the community’s grief has left these women with all of those impulses. By the novel’s end, their path has become clear, but not as clear as the inherent violence of a patriarchal order.