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November 13, 2013 / ljbradburn-Smith

Irma Voth

irma voth

For 19-year-old Irma Voth life is somewhat confusing. She has only been married a short while and she isn’t really sure how she can learn to become a better wife, without her husband around, or what exactly it is that makes her questions so annoying. Forced to remain close to a family who have publicly distanced themselves from her, under her father’s instruction, Irma exists on the outside of an insular Mennonite community, in rural Mexico. With only the cows and very occasionally her head-strong, younger sister for company Irma feels alone in the world. So when a film crew sets up shop, in the house next to hers, with the intention of making a film about Irma’s secluded Mennonite community, she embraces the chance to work for them on set.

Perhaps the most significant of her relationships, with a member of the film crew, is that of the one she forms with Wilson. A clear symbol of reaching a turning point in her life, Irma appears to process her past and come to terms with the changes in her relationships, with her family, through sharing her experiences with Wilson who, in return, shows her what it is like to have an emotional connection and reminds Irma of the fragility of the human existence. After the rest of the world literally lands on her doorstep and demands that she pay attention, Irma’s eyes are opened to a world of friendship,  the possibility of a better life for those she loves and something she craves above all, the chance to absolve herself from her past mistakes. She is an incredibly raw character, who despite her naivety, navigates the world with patience and determination. At times this novel felt as revealing and unexpected as accidentally walking in on a stranger undressing.

Toews is a clever writer who punctuates her novel with references to different types of art and other kinds of expression to represent emotional development and movement in her story. The art of film-making, poetry, literature and Aggie’s paintings all play a big part in the way her characters experience life and their expression of self. Her novel is distinctive, in its unaffected tone, and beautifully written. She explores complex ideas in a refreshingly simplistic way, through  her narrator’s honest and unedited voice.

A story of loss of innocence, heartbreak, bittersweet realisation and unexpected kindness. A story of sisterhood, family and protection and of realising that the world stretches further than your backyard.

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