In Irma Voth, Miriam Toews returns to the seam she has mined so productively in the past: the inner lives of teenagers reared in strict Mennonite communities. This time, the community is in northern Mexico, not far from Chihuahua, and the title character, Irma, is a 19-year-old girl who has married a somewhat mysterious local young man against the wishes of her father. Also mysterious is why Irma's family, which as the novel opens consists of her father, mother, 13-year-old sister, Aggie, and two younger brothers, has relocated from the Canadian Prairies to a desert that is both barren and dangerous.
Irma is a thoughtful and agreeable young woman with a strong sense of absurdity who would like to understand not only what is going on around her, but also the nature of the world she lives in. It is this yearning for knowledge that her father feels obliged to quash as best he can. He uses beatings and scripture, but long exposure to both has given Irma a substantial resistance; she ignores the teachings and avoids the beatings.
The nicely drawn contrast between what Irma knows and suspects and what the reader understands about her world gives Irma Voth a suspenseful charge from the first pages, and Irma is not the only one who seems dangerously innocent. Early in the novel, a film crew arrives to make a movie about the Mennonite community. The writer and director is Diego; the reasons he has chosen his subject are vague at best. Since she speaks Plattdeutsch, Spanish and English, Irma is hired to help translate the director's instructions to his actors (one of these is a German woman who seems a bit lost) and to cook for the crew.
The filming proceeds intermittently; Irma's father and some of the other Mennonites resist, incompetence reigns and the weather is unco-operative. Irma conceives an affection for a member of the film crew, and she enjoys her exposure to these artistic outsiders, but her feelings seem to be based on momentary impressions and to be leading nowhere.
The character who ends up driving the narrative is Aggie, the 13-year-old. Aggie may not know exactly what she wants, but when she wants whatever it is, she exerts herself with an iron will to get it. She also doggedly maintains her right to act on impulse and in opposition to authority, whether the authority is the father or Irma. Irma's and Aggie's relationship is the strongest in the novel, and their arguments back and forth about what to do and how to do it are quietly amusing.
One of the daring features of Irma Voth is that the narrative seems to move rather idly for the first 150 pages (three-fifths of the novel). Irma herself is not especially dynamic, and the men in whom she has placed her trust, her father and her husband, have repaid her trust with a cruelty and indifference that have confused her further. Her mother seems lost in a fog of reproduction, and the film crew only adds to the chaos; they may want Irma to translate for them and cook for them, but the money they promise her is conveniently in Mexico City. Only the dialogue, the gradual unfolding of Irma's disappointments and the reader's sense of potential danger give the story forward energy.
But then Aggie refuses to return to her father's house, and their mother gives birth. When the girls sneak in to tell her that they are leaving the compound, she hands them the newborn to take along - her husband does not value girls; she thinks the baby is safer in the custody of penniless and homeless teenagers than in its own home.
In Irma Voth, as in many novels about children, the adults are entirely lost. They have no moral purpose, only moral habits, and as characters they have quirks rather than personalities. Because of this, Irma's world is random - she encounters cruelty without deserving it and she encounters kindness without understanding it. Since the novel is told in Irma's voice, which is consistent, Toews's tools for communicating a larger understanding than Irma's are limited, and when Irma finally does add things together, she comes up with the wrong answer: that she is to blame (with this, her evidently misguided father would agree).
As a reader, I don't buy her conclusion, but I admire Toews's consistency and her choice to not push Irma outside of an understanding that would be realistically hers. The result, however, is that Irma Voth remains an interesting character study but not a compelling revisioning of the world. What Irma learns doesn't change my ideas of what there is to learn, it only makes me want to give the girl a hand.
Jane Smiley is the author of Private Life and many other works of fiction and non-fiction.