I’m about to offer some unconventional advice for reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews: Start with Chapter 7 and read to the end. Then, if you’re curious about the back story go back to the beginning and read the first half. If you must. The first half is not very good. The second half, starting with Chapter 7, is magnificent.
But how can you start in the middle? How will you know what’s going on? Okay, I’ll tell you. Irma Voth is a 19-year-old Mennonite woman whose family has moved from Canada to Mexico. There, Irma fell in love with a Mexican man named Jorge—not a Mennonite—and married him against her father’s wishes. After living with her for a while in a house on her family’s farm, Jorge has left her.
Irma, now alone and still in disgrace, takes a job translating for a film crew that has come to the area to make a film about the Mennonite community in Mexico. She meets a bunch of people, and there’s a dog, and it’s all convoluted and strange. A mess of a story, with people coming and going and having long meandering conversations about life and films and dreams. Irma tells her story in a flat, stream-of-consciousness style that is almost entirely lacking in emotion. It’s choppy and stilted and feels completely unnatural. Here’s a sample:
It was late when we got back to the filmmakers’ house. Wilson invited me in for coffee and I said no, I couldn’t. Then I changed my mind and said yeah, okay. He told me he wanted to show me something. Marijke had gone to her room and closed the door—we could hear her laughing or crying—and Diego was busy talking on the radio. Wilson asked me if I could come into his bedroom. I stood still and quietly panicked and then he said that it was okay, he didn’t mean it in that kind of way, he just wanted a little privacy from the others. So I followed him into his room and he closed the door and I went and stood by the window and he sat on the bed.
Thinking back on it, I wonder if Toews was trying to show an emotional deadness inside Irma. It’s strange, though, especially given that the small bits of Irma’s dialogue sound natural and even sometimes passionate. At any rate, it’s hard to get into a book with such stilted prose. The fact that the plot is all over the place and the characters underdeveloped doesn’t help. It was mostly readathon momentum that got me through the first half.
When I mentioned my dissatisfaction on Twitter, Asheley told me that the last half made the book for her, so I figured I might as well keep going. It’s a short book, just over 250 pages, and I was already halfway through. Well, the second half is a completely different book. Honestly, this book redefines the word uneven. When Irma leaves the farm with her two younger sisters, this mess of a novel turns into a funny and moving novella about sisterhood and growing up and forgiveness and contrition. The oddly stilted prose is replaced with natural-sounding language, infused with emotion.
This second book may sound trite, but it isn’t. Irma’s wicked sense of humor offsets any hint of sentimentality. Here, for instance, she observes her infant sister, finally asleep after a long crying jag:
Ximena had fallen asleep all wrapped up in the towel, soaked in sweat and with a sweet expression on her face that underneath it seemed to say fuck you all, I possess vital intangibles and when I learn to talk the world will know its shame. She was growing on me.
Irma and her sisters find a new life in Mexico City, Irma also comes to grips with her past, including her own responsibility for her pain. This could easily become just another story about a woman breaking free from a restricted religious upbringing or getting out from under the thumb of a misogynistic father, but it’s more complex than that. I was impressed.
But if you want to read this book, start with chapter 7. It’ll be fine. How could it not be, with a kick-ass opening like this?
I wrote a note and slipped it under the door for Diego to find when he woke up. I told him the truck would be at the airport in Chihuahua and the keys in the ashtray.
That’s the start of a very good novella. All the rest was a warm-up.