We just read Miriam Toews’ new novel, Women Talking and well, we women can’t stop talking about it. I made my book club add it as a second book for our next meeting (where it will be discussed alongside Sally Rooney's Normal People, which might not have been the best pairing). One of us, not naming names here, suggested it was the refutation of patriarchal society we have been waiting for.
In full disclosure, I had read the review in The New York Times and immediately decided I did not want to read this book. It fell victim to my recent refusal, for which I fully blame A Little Life, to read books that promise unrelenting misery. Frankly, I am impressed that I even finished reading the review, given this grim opening paragraph:
Between 2005 and 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to “wild female imagination.” In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious.
But then Ladette made Women Talking an agenda item in one of our meetings (yes, we have the best meetings). She insisted that I buy the book and read it immediately. As usual, she was right. I loved it.
Among its many intriguing elements—its intelligence and precision, a plot that begins after the horrific action, after the mystery has been solved—I can’t stop thinking about the novel’s structure. It is almost entirely dialogue. Or, more accurately, an account of the deliberations of a group of women who cannot read or write, interrupted by the record keeper’s occasional digressions and personal narrative. As a reviewer far smarter than I pointed out, “Women Talking works like a Socratic dialogue, the Republic moved to a Mennonite barn.”
But for whom is the record being created? And does the fact that August Epp, the record keeper, is a man undermine the women’s story?
Although I struggled with it at first, as the novel progressed I needed August. Not because he was a man, though I think there’s something sly and clever happening in that decision, but because I needed those breaks in the dialogue and the heaviness it contains. I needed that context to make clear how remarkable and new an undertaking the women’s meticulous defining, debating, and, ultimately, decision making is. Rather than diminishing their power, these breaks made the women’s words and intellect glow.
The narrative structure is not just a clever device here. It allows the women’s debate to be the primary story and recognizes the radical significance of that debate. Even August’s moments of meandering reflection matter, as they flesh out the confines of the culture in which they all live, but also its beauty. While it’s not perfect, each decision, each word Toews selects is smart and deliberate. It’s not clever just to be clever.
Playing with narrative structure is nothing new, but doesn’t it seem to be having a long moment? How many new novels have you read in the past few years that switched voices, alternated between character’s viewpoints, or from a first-person narration to a third-person omniscient one? In my very unscientific survey, I’d say the vast majority.
There are also those works that take this to the far edges, that crumple the traditional narrative structure and try something new, to varying degrees of success. Lincoln in the Bardo, with its patchwork of primary sources and chorus of characters. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing with its unnamed characters and fractured prose. Calamities, Renee Gladman’s strange jewel of an essay collection in which “the formal and syntactical choices [she] makes are direct enactments of their content.” Of course, I recognize that these writers are indebted to their experimental forefathers Faulkner, Joyce, Beckett, et al., but the English major in me finds something reassuring in the continued appetite for experimental writing of all genres.
So…now that you’ve indulged my need to gush about Women Talking and to geek out about narrative structure, what to take away from this as a writer? As a responsible editor, can I justify this digression by turning it into a writing prompt?
Take a short piece you are currently working on, or an idea you’ve been playing/struggling with, and undo its current structure. There’s room for play here.
Can you reduce the context to its barest bones? When you strip away the guiding hand of narration, is the dialogue enough to propel the piece forward? How would your story change if you told it from a different character’s perspective?
What if you removed the objectivity from your nonfiction piece and told it from your perspective, asking instead what your subject means to you, or what the writing process was like?
If this sort of play is your jam, try this writing prompt...or this one.
Quoted book reviews: