In the remote Molotschna colony, eight Mennonite women gather in a hayloft to discuss their futures. For many months a women and girls in the colony have been drugged and brutally attacked in the night, waking up with searing headaches and blood-stained sheets. The culprits - a group of several husbands, brothers, sons and fathers from the community - are eventually arrested, and the rest of the men of the colony follow them to the city to seek bail. For the first time the women of Molotschna find themselves alone and unsupervised. Over the course of two days the group must quickly decide whether they should - or even could - flee from the only home they’ve ever known, or if they should stay and fight against the evil that is driving them to choose in the first place.
As its title suggests, Women Talking is comprised almost entirely of dialogue between the eight women in the hayloft. Because they can’t read or write and only speak the language of their Mennonite community, they have enlisted local teacher and one of the few people to have ever lived outside of the colony, August Epps, to transcribe the minutes of their meeting. They begin tentatively, as though testing their ability to form and articulate opinions, and over the course of the novel their voices grow stronger, their personalities bigger. They discover, despite lifetimes of silence, that they are capable of eloquence and insight, and August, who is drawn to one women in particular, is mesmerized by their ability to forgive, but also to defend themselves and their children from darkness.
Miriam Toews, speaking in interviews and on podcasts, has said her novel is a fictionalized response to real events, namely the widely publicized case of Bolivia’s Manitoba Colony, where several men had been sexually assaulting women in their community for years. The Manitoba women’s complaints were written off as wild female imagination and even referred to as punishment from God. The attacks continued after the case came to light. In Women Talking Toews imagines what these very real women might say if given the chance.
Toews brilliantly captures the complex reactions women have to violence, particularly when that violence is perpetrated by men they know, love and rely on. Despite the anger they feel towards the men of Molotschna and the fear they feel for their children, the women are also painfully aware of the attachment they have to their home and their fellow Mennonites. Because of the colony’s rules, the women are unable to speak the native language of the country they live in, and because they are illiterate they know how challenging it will be to fend for themselves in the modern world. Despite all of this, the women of Molotschna show themselves time and again to be resilient, kind and capable of humour, empathy, and understanding. They realize the men’s actions were in some part the result of the domineering religious and culturally repressive world they were raised in, but also recognize the strengths and benefits of their religion and community.
Women Talking is an incredibly original and compelling novel for the #MeToo age. Despite its very specific setting and context, it captures a wide range and female experiences, exploring why some women display anger and hatred while others want to go back to normal after violence. It examines what happens when women used to being quiet are finally given a platform on which to speak their minds. With Toew’s signature wit and dialogue, Women Talking is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it to any readers, though it likely isn’t suitable for children. While it deals with big, complex problems, Women Talking isn’t particularly long and is easy to follow. It’s a great book to read over the course of a weekend.