Miriam Toews is a writer that I have only just discovered. I wrote earlier about her new novel All My Puny Sorrows [Genteel Poverty 3/10/2014] and as a result of thoroughly enjoying that novel have back tracked – now I have read Swing Low, a life. This is a most remarkable piece of writing, although it is a memoir of a man struggling with manic depression, it is written from his perspective, but by his daughter Miriam. It is her father’s life story, as if written by him, but written after he committed suicide.
In the prologue she writes:
Had we known then what we know now, we would have understood that the end of his teaching career would, essentially, mean the end of Mel. After his suicide, we were left with many questions. How could this have happened? we asked ourselves over and over. After all, other people have difficulty retiring, but they don’t necessarily kill themselves. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could about his life, searching, I suppose, for clues that would ultimately lead me to the cause of his death. With the help of my mother and my sister and Dad’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, I’ve managed to put a few pieces of the puzzle of his life together. But in spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.
The memoir opens in Betheseda Hospital, Steinbach, Manitoba, Mel Toews is struggling to understand why he is there and what has happened. He is dimly aware that he might have killed his wife, Elvira and the fact that his two daughters Marj and Miriam assure him she is just resting does not in any way help him to believe the contrary. His brother Reg is a consultant at this same hospital, but torn between a clinical association and a sibling one, Reg opts for the latter and so Mel is left swinging in the breeze without the essential psychiatric attention that he badly needs. During this agonising wait, he leaves the hospital of his own volition and it is not until some time later that he is found again, deeply troubled and confused. Marj and Miriam beg the hospital not to let him out again, saying that he is very good at concealing his state of mind and will assure them that he is fine, when he is not.
He gets Miriam to write notes for him on yellow pads, WE LOVE YOU. MOM LOVES YOU.THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ARE A GOOD FATHER. etc. but he cannot figure it out, and he wants to tell them that he can read cursive script. He makes his own notes, but it is muddled and meaningless when he comes to look at them again.
Gradually, through the maze, he reconstructs his life story and we travel with him on his journey from diagnosis of dementia praecox (now known as Bipolar Disorder) and to his marriage to Elvira, his life in Steinbach with a growing family which was mainly happy, though there were lows, some deep troughs in his mental state that were hard to deal with, especially during the holidays from school. But at school he was ebullient, avuncular and hugely liked and respected by his colleagues and pupils.
The Toews family come from a Mennonite background, and in both the books that I have read there is some interesting background to how the Mennonites arrived in the States. Mel is a faithful member of the church and a respected member of a close-knit community, a good father and an inspired teacher. But on retirement the waters closed over his head, his depression deepened to the point of no return and he took his own life.
This is a telling and beautiful meditation on illness, faith and love. Gracefully, compassionately written by a thoughtful and grieving daughter. Reading this book opens new pathways into Miriam Toews’ other books, since clearly she has mined her own experiences to good effect.
The two debut novels fit neatly behind Swing Low. Emma Healey has written a compelling novel about an old lady who has severe dementia and Carys Bray has written her first novel about a family coming to terms with a great sadness.
In ELIZABETH IS MISSING, we meet Maud. A widow living on her own with regular carers coming to help, a daughter Helen and a granddaughter Katy who come in often and suffer the exasperation of an elderly, muddled and confused parent with a realistic degree of impatience and love. In this captivating debut Emma Healey has caught perfectly that balance between memory and forgetfulness, the anxious scrabbling as the mind slips slowly away. Maud writes herself notes and the carers leave her notes – no more toast, do not cook – to help keep her safe. But sometimes Maud remembers what they mean and sometimes they mean very little; one note however crops up again and again “Elizabeth is missing”.
The novel swings between the eighty-two year old Maud and her ten year old childhood, which is around 1946 or slightly later. In the (un-named) Midland town where they live, there are houses damaged by bombing, rationing and general shortages, Maud’s sister Sukey lives a few streets away with her husband Frank, a removals man whose war record does not bear too close an examination. Frank is not in the fighting as he has a reserved occupation, and in the neighbourhood he is well liked after a fashion, having done favours for more than a few people; including his in-laws who often get food stuffs that are hard to come by in the shops. Maud’s parents have taken in a lodger, Douglas whose house also not far away has been damaged by a bomb.
Since the author cannot possibly actually remember houses like this in Britain, she has done a superb job of recreating those rather strange streetscapes, where a whole terrace of houses stand in a row, but some have their fronts missing – like life-sized doll’s houses where the front wall swings away to provide a view of the interior. Emma Healey has also captured exactly the grey drabness, the make do and mend mentality and the constant edge of hunger. For this alone, her writing is remarkable but then we come to the passages where we experience from the inside what it is like when your mind is going, which also given her age, must come from this author’s imagination. As creative writing this is a masterwork. The plot swings between these two periods because in both places Maud has lost something precious, and this she is trying to resolve, but no one will believe her…
In the second debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, we are in a different world altogether. Carys Bray has created a Mormon family, a devout father who is a Bishop of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in an English seaside town somewhere near Blackpool, his wife Claire and four children – Zippy (Zipporah), Al (Alma), Jacob and Issy (Isabel). The book starts with Jacob’s seventh birthday, he is going to be having a birthday party though his father has to miss it because he has an important church meeting; the day starts with a breakfast of pancakes, but Dad misses that too because someone calls him out to a sick member of the church.
But when a family tragedy strikes, all of them in their own ways struggle with faith, grief and loss differently. It is a compelling and profoundly moving story, perfectly realised and imagined. The characters of the different children, their own struggles with the Mormon faith and hierarchy and the ways in which faith is sometimes revealed is quite remarkable. So we completely understand Zippy’s anxiety about sex, and Al’s struggle with temptation; the tension between family life and the burden of responsibility laid on them by the Church, especially as their father is Bishop. But we also see a community bound together in faith and how it organises help in a crisis.
All three of these authors deserve a wide readership. Miriam Toews is new to me and I have some catching up to do; I will be watching out for eagerly for new books by Emma Healey and Carys Bray.