I’d been warned this book was upsetting and it definitely was. How could it not be when Elf is intent on killing herself and her sister, Yoli, is intent on stopping her? What I wasn’t prepared for was how funny it is in places, how bitter sweet and how it would totally change my perspective on suicide.
Elf is a successful pianist with a loving husband called Nick and her sister adores her. But Elf just doesn’t want to live. A fast approaching world tour precipitates her latest suicide attempt which sees Yoli rush to her side, along with their mother and Nick. The envelop Elf in their love and care but, as the story unfolds, Yoli is forced to confront the idea that what Elf needs more than anything is to be allowed to die. She researches the possibility of taking her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, wrestles with whether to tell the rest of the family and makes promises to Elf that she’s still not sure she can keep. Yoli is also making plans to bring her sister home, let her sit and just be and Elf knows this, so is making plans of her own.
It was clear from the outset this book was not going to end happily and yet when it did end as expected I was happy for Elf. What Toews has done is convey just how hard life is if you truly want to die. How the feelings of those anchoring you to life can matter hugely but still not be enough to keep you alive. And how sometimes nothing, not even love, is enough. That’s not something I am prepared to hear very often. Last year, someone I knew – not well but who was loved by a dear friend of mine – killed herself. Reading ALL MY PUNY SORROWS has helped me better understand why she did and to even admire her for her bravery.
Toews own sister killed herself and much of the book is close to her own experiences, including of growing up as a Mennonite. She’s depicted a childhood that’s fizzing with laughter, rich with community and full of love. As an adult, Elf appears to have it all whilst by contrast Yoli’s life is messy and unfulfilled. This messiness provides much of the book’s lightness, as do her tales of a sister who is strong willed, passionate and never does things by halves – as I said, the outcome is inevitable. And yet Toews taps into what most of us would experience in Yoli’s shoes – a blind faith that things are going to turn out differently, against all the evidence and all the odds. It’s this which is both a source of joy in the novel and of sadness. It also means the book doesn’t read as the story of Elf’s death but rather as the story of her life. Far better than the A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, ALL MY PUNY SORROWS spoke to me in all sorts of ways and I hope it might speak to you too.