Miriam Toews, Governor General's Award winner and Giller Prize Finalist, returns in her fifth novel to her award-winning Mennonite themes. As the novel opens, Irma Voth has just been left by her Mexican narco husband for being a bad wife, ostracized by her father for flouting her religion, and abandoned by her community in Mexico's Chihuhuan desert. Her mother and sister are forbidden to communicate with her and she spends her days working on her father's farm alone and her nights imagining her own death or disappearance. It is only when a visiting film crew recruits her as a translator and introduces her to a new world of art, philosophy, and sensuality, that Irma begins to find her voice, and with it the courage to flee the farm for Mexico City, younger sisters in tow.
Throughout the novel, Toews explores themes of guilt and loneliness and the healing power of communication or as she puts it, "how language can be used to transform experiences into something bearable." She describes all of her characters as, "longing for connection," and we see this in the brilliant dialogue between Irma and her sister Aggie, and the particular ability Irma has of forgiving everyone but herself. Language is transformative for her, first offering an escape from her loneliness, then an outlet for family secrets, and finally, a measure of redemption for her 'sins'.
Despite its good qualities, Irma Voth is a meandering read driven by a plot that never fully materializes and characters that struggle to be defined. The narrative is faithful to Irma's limited view, and because of this we are chained to her inability to articulate or even engage in her own experience. Though the novel is filled with beautiful scenes and strong prose we are still constantly searching for something more to read between the lines. However, when talking to Toews we almost get the sense that this is her intention, "I try to focus on emotional truth rather than dramatic plots or cataclysmic events...my characters slowly accumulate life experience and that changes them, alters them, and they express that new wisdom in different ways," she explains. So, it would seem that the real disappointment isn't in the new direction Toews moves with Irma Voth, but in our own inability to connect with her.