Sunday, 22 May 2011

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Irma Voth is a nineteen year old Mennonite woman in Mexico. She's estranged from her family and her narco husband has left her. Then a film crew arrives and shakes things up even more. There are good summaries of the story here and here.

I thought this was going to be a plot-driven book about a reclusive community and the disruption and attraction of outsiders with a different way of life. It's not - it's character and language that makes the book special.

We learn about Irma through the way that she describes her actions, the way that she describes what other people do, and the language she uses to describe her inner thoughts as well as her conversations. Her voice is strikingly naive, as is her behaviour - she hits herself in the head when frustrated, loves playing childlike games and skipping with her husband and she seems to have a superficial understanding of why people act as they do. But she's got a bit of an edge and a definite sense of humour - including exploiting her role as translator for the film to insert irreverant and ridiculous lines into the script. And as the story moves forward we find the depth behind the naive voice and outlook - Irma takes action and takes responsibility for herself and her sisters.

As the book reaches its heart, Irma tells us about the awful events which forced the family to move from Canada. I wasn't convinced by what Irma says about her sense of guilt - I found the language distancing, and felt that I was reading and analysing rather than reading and feeling. But it is clear that Irma has not moved on. When we compare Aggie's language, insight and interactions with people to the way that Irma acts, I think we get insight and sympathy for the way that Irma's shock and guilt has inhibited her emotional development and social maturity.

I'd recommend this as a fairly quick read with an interesting lead character, and particularly to people who enjoy exploring characters and fallible first person narration.

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