Elf and Yoli are sisters. While on the surface Elfrieda’s is an enviable life (she’s a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, and happily married) and Yolandi’s a mess (she’s divorced and broke, with two teenagers growing up too quickly), they are fiercely close—raised in a Mennonite household and sharing the hardship of Elf’s desire to end her own life. After Elf’s latest attempt, Yoli must quickly determine how to keep her family from falling apart, how to keep her own heart from breaking, and what it means to love someone who wants to die.
All My Puny Sorrows is the latest novel from Miriam Toews, one of Canada’s most beloved authors not only because her work is rich with deep human feeling and compassion, but because her observations are knife-sharp and her books wickedly funny. The Washington Post says, “In the crucible of [Toews’] genius, tears and laughter are ground into some magical elixir that seems like the essence of life.” And this is Toews at her finest: a story that is as much comedy as it is tragedy, a goodbye grin from the friend who taught you how to live.
Below, we share with you a short excerpt from the novel, which is out now and available for purchase here at your local independent bookstore.
Elf has beautiful hands, not ravaged by time or sun because she doesn’t go out much. But the hospital has taken her rings. I don’t know why. I guess you could choke on a ring if you decided to swallow it, or pound it against your head for several weeks non-stop until you did some damage. You could throw it into a fast river and dive for it.
How are you feeling right now? Janice is saying.
If I squint across the room at Elf I can change her eyes into dark forests and her lashes into tangled branches. Her green eyes are replicas of my father’s, spooky and beautiful and unprotected from the raw bloodiness of the world.
Fine. She smiles feebly. Dick Riculous.
I’m sorry? says Janice.
She’s quoting our mother, I say. She says things like that. Chuck you Farley. You know. She means ridiculous.
Elfrieda, you’re not being ridiculed, okay? says Janice. Right? Yoli, are you ridiculing Elf?
No, I say, not at all.
And neither am I, says Janice. Okay?
Neither am I, says a voice unexpectedly from behind the curtain, her roommate.
Janice smiles patiently. Thanks, Melanie, she calls out.
Any time, says Melanie.
So we can safely say you are not ridiculous, Elfrieda.
Well, it’s called self-ridicule, whispers Elf, but so quietly that Janice doesn’t hear it.
Was it good seeing Nic and your mother? asks Janice. Elf nods obediently. And isn’t it great to see Yolandi? You must miss her now that she’s not in Winnipeg.
Janice turns to look at me with some kind of look, I don’t know, and I feel the need to apologize. Nobody moves away from Win- nipeg, especially to Toronto, and escapes condemnation. It’s like the opposite of the Welcome Wagon. It’s like leaving the Crips for the Bloods. Elf rolls her eyes and touches the stitches in her head with her finger, one after the other. She’s counting them. Some clanking sounds are emanating from the hallway and a man is moaning. I want you to know that you’re safe here, Elfrieda, says Janice. Elf nods and looks longingly at the slab of Plexiglas next to her bed, the window.
How about if I give the two of you some time to yourselves, says Janice.
She leaves and I smile at Elf and she says come here, Swiv, and I get up and walk two steps to her bed and I sit on the edge of it and flop on top of her and she smooths my hair and sighs under the weight of my head. I go back and sit on my orange vinyl visitor chair and blow my nose and stare at her.
Yolandi, she says, I can’t do it.
I know, I say. You’ve made that point.
I can’t do the tour. There’s no way I can do the tour.
I know, I say. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry. None of it matters.
I really can’t do the tour, she says.
You don’t have to do anything, I reassure her again. Claudio will understand.
No, says Elf, he’ll be upset.
Only because you’re not… because you’re here… He’ll just want you to feel better. He knows about all this stuff. Friend first, agent second, that’s what he always says, right? He’s weathered your storms before, Elfie, he’ll do it again.
And so will Maurice be angry, says Elf, he’ll go crazy. He’s been planning this for years.
And remember Andras, the guy you met in Stockholm… when you saw me play?
I just can’t do this tour, Yolandi, says Elf. He’s coming all the way from Jerusalem.
Isaak. And a bunch of other people.
So what? I say. All those guys will understand and if they don’t it doesn’t matter. It’s not your fault. Remember what mom used to say? “Shred the guilt.” Remember?
She asks me what that horrible sound is and I tell her I think it’s dishes falling onto the concrete floor in the corridor, but she asks me if somebody is being shackled out there in the hallway and I say no, of course not, and she begins to tell me that it happens, she’s seen it, that she’s terrified, have I heard of Bedlam, and she doesn’t want to let anybody down. She says how sorry she is and I tell her nobody is angry, we want her to be okay, to live. She asks me how Will and Nora are, my kids, and I tell her fine, fine, and she covers her face with her hands. I tell her that she and I could mock life together, it’s a joke anyway, agreed, okay? Agreed! But we don’t have to die. We’ll be soldiers together. We’ll be like conjoined twins. All the time, even when we’re in different cities. I’m desperate for words.
A chaplain comes into the room and asks Elfrieda if she is Elfrieda Von Riesen and Elf says no. The chaplain peers at her in wonderment and then tells me he could have sworn that Elf was Elfrieda Von Riesen, the pianist.
No, I say. Wrong person. The chaplain apologizes for bothering us and leaves.
Who would do that? I ask.
Do what? says Elf.
Just ask another person in a hospital if she’s who they think she is. Aren’t chaplains supposed to be more discreet?
I don’t know, says Elf. It’s normal.
I don’t think it is, I say. I think it’s totally unprofessional.
Things are always bad for you if they’re unprofessional. You always say oh, that’s so unprofessional as though there’s some definition of professional that’s also a moral imperative for how to behave. I don’t even know what professional is anymore.
You know what I mean, I say.
Just stop lying to me about what life is, Elf says.
Fine, Elf, I’ll stop lying to you if you stop trying to kill yourself.
Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin, that she’s afraid it will push through and she’ll bleed to death. But mostly she’s terrified that it will break inside her. I ask her what kind of piano it is and she tells me that it’s an old upright Heintzman that used to be a player piano but that the player mechanism has been removed and the whole thing has been turned into glass, even the keys. Everything. When she hears bottles being thrown into the back of a garbage truck or wind chimes or even a certain type of bird singing she immediately thinks it’s the piano breaking.
A child laughed this morning, she says, a little girl here visiting her father, but I didn’t know it was laughter, I thought it was the sound of glass shattering and I clutched my stomach thinking oh no, this is it.
I nod and smile and tell her that I’d be terrified of breakage too if I had a glass piano inside me.
So you understand? she asks.
I do, I say. I honestly, honestly do. I mean, what would happen if it broke?
Thank you, Yoli.
Hey, are you hungry? I ask her. Is there anything I can do for you?
She smiles, no, nothing.
Read an interview with Miriam Toews in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Purchase your copy of All My Puny Sorrows here.