The true crime at the center of Miriam Toews’s novel “Women Talking” is unspeakable.
It sounds like something from the Middle Ages or a dystopia by Margaret Atwood. But, in fact, these horrors took place only a decade ago in the Manitoba Mennonite colony in Bolivia. For several years, more than 100 women and girls woke up in the morning bruised and sore, lying in their own blood. Strictly isolated in this patriarchal religious community, the women were told they must be imagining things or that evil spirits were punishing them for their sins. But finally the truth came out: At least eight men had been using a veterinary sedative intended for cows to knock out whole families and then rape the women and girls — some as young as 3 years old.
The Mennonites, a pacifist Christian denomination founded in the 1500s, have no formal legal system, and the most conservative colonies remain separate from modern society. The leaders of the Manitoba colony intended at first to handle this horrendous crime themselves, but the Bolivian government eventually became involved, and the rapists were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Toews brings an unusual perspective and a unique approach to her fictional treatment of this atrocity. A Canadian author, she was raised by Mennonites, an experience that informed her brilliant 2004 novel, “A Complicated Kindness.” Although she has long since left the church, she understands the contours of the Mennonites’ exceptionally private faith, and she also knows the ills that can fester in such hermetically sealed communities.
But Toews has no interest in exploiting this crime for dramatic purposes. Crucially, “Women Talking” opens after the attacks have been exposed and outside authorities have become involved. The entire novel takes place during a brief two-day window when the leaders of the colony have taken their animals into town to raise money to bail out the rapists, whom they insist on referring to as “unwelcome visitors.” During this period, eight women gather in a hayloft to decide what they should do next. They are all victims — and mothers or daughters of victims — and they are all related in some way to the men who violated them.
The community’s leader has decreed that the women must forgive their attackers or forfeit their own salvation. For people who take religious authority and spiritual salvation seriously, this is a formidable challenge, which Toews conveys with all due solemnity. In the opening pages of the novel, her eight female characters have arrived at three options:
1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
Of course, each of these choices is dangerous, as any victim of sexual assault knows, but the situation is particularly fraught for these women, who are illiterate, possess no property and have no knowledge of the world outside their community. They know only farming and what they have been told is in the Bible. Is that enough to determine how they should respond to this extraordinary situation? Can they suddenly assume agency over their own lives?
These are just women talking. And this is a novel fully aware of the dismissive attitudes that infect that phrase. After all, for years their complaints of mysterious bruises and cuts were dismissed as mere women’s talk. But now they are determined to set their own fate. They have roughly 24 hours before the men return and block their escape.
This is fiction as deliberation, and yet it feels packed with drama. It also feels infused with a deeply sympathetic understanding of the way women talk — a subject that has drawn the attention of scholars as diverse as Luce Irigaray and Deborah Tannen. Toews captures the Mennonites’ antique way of speaking, a language thick with biblical tropes and Christian ideals challenged by the obscenity of what has been done to them. “We must love,” one of the women insists, but how can that imperative be fulfilled in the face of such abuse?
Yes, these eight brave women disagree, even caustically sometimes, but they also listen and forgive and move on as they constantly circle around the question at hand, define their terms and challenge their assumptions. There is something strangely thrilling about this endlessly cycling conversation, which darts from petty grievances to philosophical conundrums to parental responsibilities. These are women trying to construct the elements of a feminist theology from scratch using only the metaphors of their farm work and the logic of their maternal affection. Sitting in a barn as the light fades, they have taken on nothing less than deconstructing the patriarchal strictures of their church while somehow retaining their faith. It is literally a matter of life and death and afterlife.
There are no flashbacks or elaborate descriptions of the atrocities committed. Instead, the details of those attacks — and their effects — drop in unexpectedly, almost as asides: an unmarried woman is pregnant, a child can no longer control her bladder, an old woman had all her teeth knocked out. The effect is glancing but brutal. Toews conveys not only what these women suffered but how stoically and graciously they endure.
As their conversation evolves, we get to know these eight women, particularly Salome, who announces she might “shoot each man in the heart and bury them in a pit.” That response is understandable but anathema to these pacifists, particularly Salome’s sister, Ona, an otherworldly young woman ignored and dismissed for her strange personality. Ona challenges others in the group to create a revolutionary manifesto to lead them forward toward “a new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love.” To her peers, such a proposal sounds foolhardy or worse. “Ona is thought to have lost her fear — which is akin, for colonists, to having lost one’s moral compass and then transformed into a demon.”
That narrator, by the way, is the most surprising element of “Women Talking.” It’s a man: a troubled, thoughtful figure named August Epp. He’s painfully aware of how problematic it is for him to be serving as the public voice of these women, their scribe and interpreter. The much-derided son of two expelled members, August is a prodigal member of the community who returned to serve as a teacher. Gentle but not effeminate, questioning but not heretical, he’s a curious mediator for these women. It was Ona, the scorned but fearless one, who asked August to attend the secret meetings in the hayloft and write down their deliberations. Clearly, he would do anything for her, but gradually, we come to realize what Ona is doing for him even in this excruciating moment.
Though Toews remains frustratingly unknown in the United States, she has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors. The compressed structure of “Women Talking” makes it unlike her earlier novels, but once again she draws us into the lives of obscure people and makes their survival feel as crucial and precarious as our own.
On April 11, at 7 p.m., Miriam Toews will be at Politics and Prose at Union Market, 1270 Fifth St. NE. Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.