It was a historic — and horrifying — case of gaslighting. One hundred thirty Mennonite women and children were drugged and raped in their Bolivian colony over a period of four years, starting in 2005. Their abusers, men in their own community, told the victims, 3 to 60 years old, that their attacks had been perpetrated by ghosts.
Miriam Toews fictionalizes this ugly chapter of history in her latest novel, Women Talking. In her version of the story, eight Mennonite women, also in Bolivia, begin to hold secret meetings after suffering repeated violations in 2009. They have just two days before their fathers and husbands return from a trip to a nearby city to bail out their accused attackers, and they must meet in secret to evade those around them who remain loyal to the absent menfolk. Since these women are illiterate, deemed unworthy of education by the men who rule their world, they ask a previously shunned Mennonite man, August Epp, to keep “minutes” of their talks.
The assembled include women from two families, the Loewens and the Friesens. They range from teenagers to grandmothers, from giggling adolscents Autje Loewen and Neitje Friesen to the chain-smoking Mejal Loewen and her irritating mother Greta. Together they must decide: Will they do nothing? Stay and fight? Or leave the only community they’ve ever known? Ona, a spinster who is pregnant from a rape, encapsulates the stakes for them all: “When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”
The author herself was born in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, and left the group and its religion at 18. Several of her six previous novels, including A Complicated Kindness and Irma Voth, discuss the problems with the patriarchal Mennonite culture, and Women Talking builds on those books.
The novel employs an audacious conceit: while it’s a story about women, it anchors its narrative in a man’s perspective, as August bears witness to the most private, painful and urgent of the victims’ conversations. The reader’s only way to learn about these women is through his male voice — a setup that both heightens the injustice of the women’s situation and keeps readers at a distance from what they think and feel. But even through the filter of a male narrator, Toews shows us how these women, who can’t read or write, are capable of great reasoning and philosophy. They have learned holy writ just as well as the men who control its print.
Each of the options they identify in the wake of their abuse is grim, yet the novel as a whole is anything but. Toews infuses the women’s humor, from broad to subtle, as the group constructs a plan. Even in the midst of their toughest conversations, they cackle together, daydreaming of a scenario in which they could force the men to sit at school desks wearing dunce caps, and crack sardonic jokes at one another’s expense. This group may be isolated from the world, but its members join a long tradition of women bonding in laughter.
And like so many other women, they count on their male peers’ belief that because they are women, they will not strike back. Toews calls to mind a long line of underestimated icons, from the fictional Lysistrata to Joan of Arc, who took control of their lives and their communities too — all the while relying on men’s blindness to their power. When the elderly Earnest enters and asks jokingly if the women are plotting to burn down his barn, Agata says, “No, Ernie. There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” One day, Toews suggests, these women — and all the women of the world — will take control, just so long as they keep talking.