Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: April 2, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Literary, Social Issues
In the Mennonite community of Molotschna eight women gather in a barn to talk. Their meeting is a secret, made possible only because the men have gone into the city to bail out eight men who have been accused of a heinous crime: that of drugging and raping over 100 of the community’s women and girls repeatedly over a two-year span. It will take two days for the men to return and they will likely bring the rapists back with them. Women Talking is the proceedings of these women’s meetings as they discuss what to do. On the table are three options—leave, stay and fight, or do nothing. Each has difficult implications and each woman has a different perspective on what should happen. What follows is a novel where minimal outward action belies an extraordinary inward journey of reflection and self-actualization.
The patriarchal nature of Molotschna is such that the colony’s women are illiterate and speak only Plautdietsch—a medieval, spoken version of Low German not even known in the country where they live. The colony is isolated and interaction with the outside world is strictly forbidden for women. Both of these elements contribute to the ease with which, not only were the victims drugged, raped, and beaten, but when they awoke bruised, bleeding, and groggy, their stories were written off as either visitations by Satan to purge them of their sins or tales from their wild “female imaginations”. Even more horrifying is that their attackers were their own husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons.
Throughout Women Talking, author Miriam Toews ably evokes the sense of men, under the guise of godliness, running roughshod over women and little girls. The premise is terrifying in the damage inflicted as the victims include a grandmother who had all her teeth knocked out when she screamed, a young woman considered emotionally unbalanced who’s now pregnant, and a 3-year-old girl who has an STD. The women are not believed, there is no solace or care applied to their injuries, but the colony’s leadership acts swiftly to keep the men out of jail and bring them back to the very women they assaulted with impunity.
Women Talking is literally just that—a transcription of two long meetings. It’s not a book of suspense or true crime. Neither the rapes or what happens to the rapists comes into play. Rather it is the women’s discussion of the tenets of their faith and how those have been as seriously violated as the women themselves. It isn’t until late on the first day that one of the women, Salome, first voices the crux of their situation:
“We are the women of Molotschna. The entire colony of Molotschna is built upon the foundation of patriarchy, where the women live out their days as mute, submissive and obedient servants. Animals. Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates, to vote on our excommunications, to speak at the burials of our own babies while we remain silent, to interpret the Bible for us, to lead us in worship, to punish us! We are not members, we are commodities.
When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters. And if they could sell us all at auction afterwards they would”
It is this kind of realization, honed after hours of halting conversation, that is the awful beauty of Women Talking. The importance of the novel is simply and profoundly that: women talking. They may not know how to read or write, but intellectually they’re exploring worlds previously unknown to them and challenging the roles imposed on them as breeders, servants, and laborers. They’re exercising their God-given right to think.
Stylistically, Women Talking, has a simplistic feel, but it’s the only way Toews can realistically convey the women’s speech. And yet, even with the limitations imposed on their development, they spark with insight as they try and agree on what to do next. Watching the progression of their discussions, from the most basic aspects of their situation to the finer points of religion, free will, and philosophy, is what makes Women Talking shine bright. It’s what most likely made Margaret Atwood herself compare the novel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Women Talking has its problems, which makes me sad because I feel it speaks to themes that are critical at this time in history. I want everyone to read it and talk about it! The slow pace in the first half and the way the women interact and speak means plenty of readers will abandon the book early on. But, really, it’s no more difficult than the mental effort the women themselves have to exert. Then there is the final paragraph which I just did not get. It felt like reverting back to the men and made no sense to me. So much of importance has just transpired, why this ending?
Flaws aside, if you are looking for reading that asks and answers questions deep at the core of a woman’s intrinsic worth, that peels away the mantle covering subjugation within the patriarchy of traditional religion, then Women Talking is the kind of book that will stay with you long after you finish reading. I’m still thinking about it.