by Miriam Toews (Faber and Faber)

I heard this book mentioned on the radio recently – not a review, just a passing mention on a chat show. I can’t even remember who the speaker was, but she recommended this book so warmly, and its premise sounded so interesting, that it immediately took up top spot on my ‘must-read’ list.

Novels about sisters are not unusual. Novels about a woman who is desperate to die and her sister’s desperate attempts to keep her alive, however, are slightly less run-of-the-mill.  Reviews all seem to see a blackly comic aspect to the semi-autobiographical story, but if it’s there, the comedy was lost on me. What I saw were the futile attempts by the narrator, Yolandi, to find some humour in the telling of her sister Elfrieda’s story, and to me, these simply served to further emphasise the sadness of the story.

It took me some time to engage with the novel; the Canadian Mennonite setting of the girls’ childhood was not something I could easily identify with at first, until I recognised in Yoli’s constant sexual shame echoes of 1950s Ireland. Her dilemma, whether or not to help her sister end a life that it seemed she was going to end anyway, help or no help, is one that any sister can imagine. If that person to whom you are so close, to whom you are bound by ties of both blood and love,  asks you to help them when no-one else can, how would you react? It’s another take on the right-to-die debate, albeit the more controversial situation of mental illness rather than physical.

While it might not be swimming-pool reading, this is a gripping, beautiful and thought-provoking novel which will haunt you long after you reach the last page.

I too a Sister had, an only Sister—
She lov’d me dearly, and I doted on her!
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows
(As a sick Patient in a Nurse’s arms)
And of the heart those hidden maladies
That e’en from Friendship’s eye will shrink asham’d.
O! I have wak’d at midnight, and have wept
Because she was not!
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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