All My Puny Sorrows

Until recently I lived just off the Danforth in Toronto. One strange Torontonian practice I noticed while there was that some people would leave unwanted books on their lawn, so I happened to pick up this book one day while walking to the subway station.

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I found the book in perfect condition beside a water damaged copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I might attempt later on down the line. I decided that I would read it as a break from my adventure through the NCL and its competitors.

All My Puny Sorrows follows a middle-aged woman, Yolanda, whose older sister Elfrieda is suicidal. Since Yolanda is the narrator of sorts, the book follows her efforts to respond to her sister’s suicide attempts and manage the other aspects of her life in the meantime. Twice divorced, Yolanda has two teenage children, and several short-term lovers which make appearances throughout the book. For my money the most compelling character is her mother, who remains emotionally strong and lively despite the innumerable sorrows she encounters throughout her life.

I choose a good time to read the book as I was teaching in a bioethics course at Toronto just as I began reading, with one of the units being focused on assisted suicide. The book raises the question, which Yolanda grapples with, of whether she should help her sister kill herself more peacefully. That her sister does not have a terminal illness, but is only inconsolably depressed, makes the question interestingly complicated. The details of the case muddle how ideal of an example the book offers however, since Elfrieda is clearly not receiving ideal medical care. The more difficult thought experiment would present us with someone who has the best help available but remained inconsolably depressed; with Elfrieda there remains a possibility that a better healthcare system could save her.

I was not surprised to learn that the core of the book is based on the author’s experiences with her own sister who committed suicide. The depiction of the Canadian mental health infrastructure is particularly scathing and is what made me suspect the author had some first-hand experience. The doctors and nurses Yolanda meets are, with some exceptions, generally jaded, unsympathetic, and self-absorbed. In fairness, this is how they seem to Yolanda’s eyes, a woman desperately searching for help for her sister. Stressed under the circumstances, it is easy to see why she would think medical professionals do too little.

I do not want to say too much more about the book as it is more recent than most I cover here. However, a colleague did catch me laughing aloud more than once at it, so that says something positive about its capacity for effectively mixing sorrow with a comedic touch.

In this book Yolanda is a writer who mostly writes tween fiction about the adventures of Rodeo Rhonda. This prompted me to reflect on how many of the viewpoint characters in the novels I’ve been reading are writers, especially since the central character in the last book I had read, The Town Below, was also an author. I realize this results from authors writing “what they know” which is frequently “being an author” but I wish more of them would branch out. I Do Remember The Fall also featured this kind of plot device, although the protagonist was a sort-of journalist, not a novelist, and not a successful one at that. I can give some modest praise to The Alley Cat here for depicting a protagonist proficient at something other than writing, namely restaurant management. It will be interesting to see whether this trend of author protagonists continues, and honestly I hope otherwise.

For next time I intended to read Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie, but having found it a difficult book that demands careful and patient reading, I’ve decided to return to it later. Instead I’ll be reading Earle Birney’s Turvey, a comedy about one man’s farcical attempts to join  the Canadian army during the Second World War. Given my current work  this seemed an appropriate book to give a read.

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