Miriam Toews’s fifth work of fiction revisits the elements that helped turn her 2004 novel, A Complicated Kindness, into an international bestseller: a questing girl at odds with her Mennonite family. At 19, Irma Voth is a freshly deserted bride who is also at war with her father. (“I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house and milking the cow and embroidering dangerous words onto the inside of my dresses, words like lust and agony and Jorge…”). This time, though, the setting is not Manitoba but Mexico, where a Spanish filmmaker has come to make a movie about the Mennonite community. When Irma is hired to work as a translator on the set, her father disowns her, then tries to sabotage the film. Meanwhile, the director and his ragtag, passionate crew introduce Irma to a whole new religion—art. Her rebellious little sister decides to tag along, and the girls run off to Mexico City, along with infant sister Ximena, rescued from their depressed mother.
This baby is a fantastic character, the Sean Penn of infants—a punching, puking, indomitable little force who wrestles the two sisters into the rough shape of a family as they struggle to build a life in the big city. The mood is typical Toews, as slyly comic as a Jim Jarmusch film, but there is a core of loneliness in Irma, along with a buried family secret, which adds gravity to the humour. And there are many pinpricks of joy, like points of starlight, along the way, too; in Toews’s universe, family is often harsh but strangers sometimes behave like angels—and art can be redemptive.
Irma Voth is about forgiveness, of others, and oneself. It’s a novel that seems to mistrust words, and chooses them with care. The early chapters on the film set suffer slightly from the ennui and chaos that are part of that process, but once the Voth girls land in Mexico City, Toews’s ability to generate comedy and heartache at the same time just soars.