Giller Reading Day 5: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Untitled design-5I’m one of the fortunate people that got to read Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows when it was still in manuscript form in early 2014 and I remember experiencing so many feelings, almost every one on the Abraham-Hicks Emotional Guidance Scale. I laughed, I cried, I pouted, essentially I was a jumble of feelings for 320 pages. To ensure I was able to provide an accurate review of All My Puny Sorrows, I felt it was important to reread the book to refresh my memory. So that’s exactly what I did and then I cried all over again.

This is the story of two sisters named Elf and Yoli. Elf is an award winning pianist, in a happy marriage and considered quite successful. From the outside looking in, everything looks normal, but there’s one catch… Elf is determined to die. She’s made countless attempts to take her own life and thankfully has yet to succeed. Her sister Yoli isn’t as successful as her sister; she’s divorced and broke, but she isn’t struggling with mental illness and she’s got a strength, a sense of humour and a determination to help try to convince her sister to live. Knowing that Elf is deeply broken, Yoli drops everything to travel back and forth to see her despite the fact that it’s costing her a fortune and she’s still trying to be a Mother to teenagers. I’m not a Mother, but I know that raising teenagers isn’t a simple feat and if you add an extra level of stress, a strong and courageous woman will emerge.

Unbeknownst to some readers, this novel has an added level of context, because the premise of this fictional novel is based on Miriam Toews life. Toews’ sister and father unfortunately took their own lives and although she’s quick to point out that this is a fictional novel, it’s fiction based on truth. In April 2014, she spoke with the National Post and stated,

“I knew, with my sister, that the chances of her killing herself were very real,” says Toews, 49, sitting on the couch in the living room of her west-end Toronto home. “I was absolutely terrified, absolutely desperate. I would have done anything. Except, of course, I didn’t do what she asked me to do.”

What Marj asked her sister to do was help end her life, an unimaginable request. Toews considered her sister’s plea, but, ultimately, Marj acted alone. Afterwards, Toews did what she has always done when it comes to processing trauma — she wrote. “For me, writing is an act of survival,” she says. Try as she might, she couldn’t ease her sister’s pain, but, with All My Puny Sorrows, she has, in a small way, eased her own.

This is a close look at the relationships we form with our family members, but it’s a sad examination of the realities of mental illness. Toews writes with conviction and stability and whether she wins or loses the Giller Prize, you NEED to read this book. It will change your whole world.

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswan. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

Want to celebrate this literary evening wearing those shoes you’ve been saving for a fancy occasion? I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out


One thought on “Giller Reading Day 5: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

  1. Naomi says:

    I loved this book. Just reading your review is bringing back the tears. The fact that it’s based on truth makes it that much more haunting and beautiful.

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