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book review

Author Miriam ToewsKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In Miriam Toews's brilliant and desperately sad new novel, All My Puny Sorrows, we meet two sisters. One is our narrator, Yolandi, a moderately successful author of rodeo-themed young adult novels. The other is Elfrieda, or Elf, a world-class concert pianist known for her Rachmaninoff, in much demand in the capitals of Europe. Yolandi lives in Toronto; Elfrieda lives in Winnipeg. Yolandi has two children; Elfrieda has none. Yolandi lives a happy enough life, though she's down on herself for sleeping around, for not being as career-driven as she might be. Elfrieda wants to die so desperately that, at one point in the novel, she cuts her wrists and drinks bleach.

AMPS, as Elfrieda abbreviates the Coleridge line that lends the novel its title, has been called a book about suicide. And fair enough: it is a book about suicide, and, as must be noted, a book drawn from suicides in Toews's own life – those of her father and her sister. But it's actually a book about what it is to be a sibling, and particularly about what it is to be a sibling to only one other sibling. It is one of the most moving and accurate representations of that complicated situation I have ever read.

That relationship is the smallest, most intense unit of family – there is none closer, even when it's bad, partly because there is no relationship with less clearly defined parameters. There's no parental responsibility, no filial obligation. You just are, alongside that other person. Even as you grow up and grow apart, you are connected by what you shared.

That's the nature of siblinghood: it's formed in the crucible of childhood; even as adults, childhood remains its grammar, the common language that continues to shape it. But what happens when that bond matures into adulthood? Often, it softens and blurs into nostalgia.

Throughout AMPS, we are reminded that childhood was an ideal (and idealized) state – "I remember perfectly – or should I say I have a perfect memory," Yolandi relates, highlighting how we reshape our past – and that that ideal state has been degraded: "There was no freer soul in the world than me at age nine," she offers, "and … now I woke up every morning reminding myself that control was an illusion."

In a way, it was a better time: Elfrieda's mental illness, the internal churning that seeks to destroy her, wasn't present, or at least as pronounced. In adulthood, the whole world has backslid: "I saw an orderly who had once been the lead singer of a local punk band," Yolandi notes. "He was stacking trays and whistling next to a poster that listed the symptoms of Flesh Eating Disease."

Part of that erosion is the awareness of life's fundamental despair. "Did Elf have a terminal illness?," Yolandi wonders. "Was she cursed genetically from day one to want to die? Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile, every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and triumph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and oblivion?"

All of which sounds rather grim, when you spell it out. But it isn't, because this is a Miriam Toews novel, which are always delicate braids of sadness and humour. In this sense, and all others, for that matter, AMPS is her most accomplished novel yet.

It's funny – often really funny. Thus the Mennonite community's disapproval of Yolandi and Elfrieda's mother's choice to become a social worker and turn her home into an office brings "a steady stream of sad and angry Mennonites came to our house, usually in secret because therapy was seen as lower even than bestiality because at least bestiality is somewhat understandable in isolated farming communities."

At a memorial service, a toddler opens the urn containing the deceased and snacks on some ashes; late in the novel, Yolandi compares living with her mother to living with Winnie the Pooh.

But even in the many moments of lightness, there is a dangerous undercurrent of sadness. At one point Yoli buys "Vaseline Intensive Care lotion, which had recently been renamed Vaseline Intensive Rescue lotion by the company to reflect the emergency atmosphere of current life on earth."

Sadness is the book's currency. And not just the sadness embodied in Elfrieda. Yolandi suggests that sadness such as hers lives within us all, a shared consciousness of sorts.

When her mother asks her why the teenage heroines in her rodeo novels are all so sad, if their struggles are because Yoli has so much sadness in her, she has a simple answer: "no, no, everyone has all that sadness in them."

And that is the book's great gift: its reminder that feeling such things is normal. In a world where everyone has that sorrow in them – which is to say, a world like ours – we find permission to embrace that sadness, rather than a rallying cry to escape it. And we witness the possibility of making a life that can accommodate incredible intimacy without denying the fundamental bleakness of existence.

At one point early in the novel, Yolandi recalls asking her sister, when they were young, "what's so hot about playing the piano?" Elfrieda offers an argument for how to structure a performance for maximum efficacy, but it's just as easily read as a roadmap for the success of All My Puny Sorrows:

"She told me that the most important thing was to establish the tenderness right off the bat, or at least close to the top of the piece, just a hint of it, a whisper, but a deep whisper because the tension will mount, the excitement and drama will build – I was writing it down as fast as I could – and when the action rises the audience might remember the earlier moment of tenderness, and remembering will make them long to return to infancy, to safety, to pure love, then you might move away from that, put the violence and agony of life into every note, building, building still, until there is an important decision to make: return to tenderness, even briefly, glancingly, or continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end."

AMPS proves that that final, important decision is not much of a decision at all. There is no need to choose relief over violence, or love over pain. In this devastating novel – as in life itself – tenderness and tragedy are, like siblings, forever bound.

Jared Bland is the editor of Globe Arts and Globe Books.

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