This book might be the perfect book club read for 2019. There is plenty to chew on and discuss within this slender volume. The bulk of the story is one long conversation that takes place over the course of two days - the women of an isolated Mennonite colony have been brutally sexually abused, and now they must decide whether to stay in the only home they have known or leave for the greater unknown world. The core of the story is rooted in the tension often found between religion and liberation, especially for women. A yearning for the ability to know more, be more, and even to be alone with one's thoughts, all at odds with what is perceived to be holy and proper. Ultimately it is a struggle between autonomy and community, safety and caregiving. The conversation is steeped in the spiritual as it explores the philosophical, and does not shy away from taking a hard look systemic issues of misogyny even though that word is never used. It was raw, wrenching, and throughly engrossing. I read it in two sittings.
So why only three stars? This was a struggle that was difficult for me to connect to. These women are very concerned with the religious implications of their quandary. The role of forgiveness, by themselves and by God. Whether is is acceptable to go against the wishes of their husbands. What is holy, godly, and righteous. This is important to them. But I'm a very different person. If someone repeatedly raped my three year old daughter staying with them would not be a question for me. It would not be up for debate. And so it was a difficult "problem" for me to invest in. This book was like a train wreck for me - I couldn't look away, but I was entirely horrified.
The other thing I bounced off of was Toews choice of narrator. I appreciated that she had a man keeping the record of the conversation, and that this man was a bit of an outsider himself. That was fine. I didn't like that he was romantically inclined toward one of the women. It cheapened the connection and the insights. I'd have preferred he care about them and their plight without being smitten. It might be nit-picky of me, but it really did bother me. Men are allowed to care about, and empathize with, women without being in love with them. It's a trope I'm tired of reading.
Here's the thing: I think this will be a deeply compelling read for anyone who has struggled with the role of faith and religion in their life while attempting to be independent and free thinking. I, however, am a stranger to that struggle so it didn't hit me quite as close. If you want a book that contrasts religion with feminism this is a really interesting read. It dives into territory you don't often see explored, and it's fertile ground. This book is going to be a great read for many people. If you have zero investment in religious dogma, however, this one may miss the mark for you.