Women Talking

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 28 Feb 2019

Member Reviews

Women Talking is a philosophical, beautifully-written exploration of faith, responsibility, and the choices women must make when their community relies on their labor to sustain itself. It goes beyond just sustenance, as the women are forced to endure horrible conditions, with the alternative being that the men in their lives, men who they love and make up their family and authority figures, would be forced to take responsibility for themselves. It's an interesting look at how far people are willing to go, what they will endure, to ensure that their lifestyle and faith, indeed the foundations of their lives, remain undisturbed.
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While this novel is classified as fiction, it is based on a true story and reads like something in between; it’s challenging material, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but I definitely appreciate its value. 

This is, literally, a documentation of two long meetings between a group of Mennonite women; they are struggling to reframe their faith in light of the fact that many of them have recently been sexually abused by the men to whom they have always assumed they should show respect and submission in order to be faithful servants. 

Flaws aside, if you are looking for reading that asks and answers questions deep at the core of a woman’s intrinsic worth, that peels away the mantle covering subjugation within the patriarchy of traditional religion, then Women Talking is the kind of book that will stay with you long after you finish reading. I’m still thinking about it.
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I read this as background for a review that we ran on BookBrowse (written by a colleague). She rated it 4 stars. The review is at https://www.bookbrowse.com/reviews/index.cfm/book_number/3911/women-talking and has been sent to publicity.
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Yesterday was Independent Bookstore Day and I secured a signed copy of Women Talking by Miriam Toews! You can listen to a great interview with her on NPR. I received an ARC of it thanks to Netgalley, but hadn't gotten around to reading it yet so was super pleased with my find. One of my favorite Booktubers, Britta Bohler, also raved about it!

Women Talking is based on a true story of women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia who were the survivors of rape. Late in the night, men in the community would drug women and rape them so they would wake bruised and bloody, later developing STDs and often becoming pregnant. The women in the story meet in a hayloft for 48 hours to decide what to do. Will they do nothing, stay and fight, or do nothing? This is their story.

So, I love everything this book was trying to do. I loved that the author grew up Mennonite so she had experience with the culture she was writing about. I loved how you read about the rapes without reliving the details. That decision gives power to the women and not to the rapists. It was beautiful, inspiring, empowering, and yet, it was women talking. Portions of this book with rather slow. Maybe I read it at the wrong time, maybe I was in too much of a hurry... I liked it, but didn't love it. So please read it and let me know what you think!
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Fictionalized account of extremely horrific true events (though the actual council of elders / priests never gave the women a 'choice' to forgive the alleged rapists / perpetrators or leave the colony, but there was silence in the community at that time and since then, the victims / survivors afforded no support whatsoever, even after the convictions). 

Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.
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I really wanted to like this book but found that I was having a hard time getting interested.  The description of the book and the fact that is is loosely based on true events had me curious.
I began reading and found that I just didn't connect with any of the women or the narrator of the story.  I tried to read through more than 70 pages and just stopped.  The writing style was a bit "choppy" for my taste.
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Worth all the hype - I really enjoyed Women Talking and loved discussing it with others. I would definitely recommend this short, quick but beautiful book
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I really wish I could give a full review for this book, but the galley I received was such a jumble it was very difficult to read. I had to abandon it. I don't know if it was the original file or the Kindle conversion, but I don't think it was meant to look that way.
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No way around it, this book is a hell of a thing.

Toews' fictionalized account is based on real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in the ultra-conservative Bolivian Manitoba Mennonite Colony in Canada. In the real-life version, over 130 women and young girls were repeatedly anesthetized --with a sedative spray typically used on animals-- assaulted, raped and, in some cases, impregnated, by men in the community.

This book is, in Toews' words, "an imagined response" to a similar situation - wherein in the women of the fictional Molostchna community meet and discuss their options after the men are arrested.

It's a stark scene. A small group of eight women, meeting in a barn. They're dressed as one might expect, in clothes of a time past. They sit on buckets or bales, their children crawl around in the hay, some vomit into buckets dealing with the ill-effects of unwanted pregnancy. Mostly, they're anxious, angry and conflicted. They recognize immediately how they are less in the community as women - they can't read or write, they don't own anything, they don't know geography or how to read a map, they don't know what lies beyond their community.

Toews, on behalf of the women, asks valid questions. Questions that no doubt passed through the minds of real-life women. Should they stay and fight? What would that look like if the very men who've assaulted them are still calling all the shots? Do they leave? Where would they go? How would they eat? How many of their children could they take? What would their husbands do? And, the most pointed option, stay and do nothing.

The book is narrated by August Epp, a young man and teacher who grew up in the community, was exiled with his family, and then later, was able to return in this somewhat shameful capacity. He is the only male ally represented and is brought in to take the minutes, occasionally provide clarification and (whether asked for or not) give the women as much support as they welcome. It's also an opportunity for August to get closer to his objet petit a - Ona, an unmarried, middle-aged woman, who was impregnated during the attacks. It's through August's eyes we see the deep hurt, frustration, and betrayal making its way through each woman. When discussing their faith, and whether they'd be adhering or blaspheming by whatever their decision, August thinks this is “the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.”

While these are certainly serious times in the community, it's not all darkness. Though the women are from the same community and generally abide by the same strict rules of faith, they find the power within each other due to their terrible circumstances. Moments of lightness happen within the more challenging moments - one mother's tip on how to guide a cherry stone out of a child's nose by sucking it out, and the occasional back and forth between women who have long been of different minds, now united in their desire to put an end to their silent victimhood.

By narrative structure alone, this book will not be for everyone. It's written mostly as a conversation - so those expecting long paragraphs of minute description will find it lacking. Those who stick around with a slightly different way of doing things will find the story for what it is, a deeply moving, sympathetic view on the aftermath of tragedy and the power in coming together.
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WOMEN TALKING is a unique book in that it’s primarily about a small group of  Mennonite women working through the best way to handle the patriarchal religious system that has created space for hundreds of them to be repeatedly raped by a group of men and asks them to forgive their rapists if they want to stay a part of society. It’s mostly a philosophical text that focuses on patriarchy, power, the meaning of faith v religion, and how to protect women and children. It’s based on real events as far as the repeated rapes of a group of Mennonite women and children, but it’s questions and discussion stretch much further. 

Who is a victim of patriarchy and how can we protect ourselves from the violence it enacts on the female body? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep our faith and beliefs intact? What aspects of our society have we accepted as truth only because we’ve been told as much by those in power? Lots to grapple with here and I’ll be thinking about the questions for a long time.
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This is the most powerful, poignant, and ferocious book I have read all year. This novel is based off a man who is writing down the secret meeting of 8 Mennonite women talking about their future, their families, and essentially their faith. They have experienced rage, love, and question their very being. I don't think I have ever opened a book with as much patriarchal violence and power that has left me feeling this emotional. 

I love this book for its sense of women rallying together and standing up for their right. Yet, at the same time, I hate book like this in general because there should be no reason women fear these ideas. What I mean is, we shouldn't have to fear that this happens/ could happen/ or is a reality to some. That is what makes this such a powerful read and one you won't be able to put down even after you've finished. 

"We are women without a voice. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in."
 
1. Do Nothing
2. Stay and Fight
3. Leave

Those are the choices these women have concluded to. Each woman can decide for herself. With only two days to decide while the men gather to town to bail the rapists from jail, these women are tested beyond what they thought was possible. Yet, what are they to their faith, to themselves if they continue this path? Are they truly strong enough to fight against the men who have controlled their every move for their life? If they leave, what about the ones they have to leave behind and where would they even go? 

"It is true that hunger and fear are the things we share with animals, not the intelligence that allows us to establish perspective or distance in order to better assess a situation."


These women have been through so much and have finally had the chance to come together to make some decisions about their future. They can't read, can't write, can't even speak words of the language of the country they live in. So leaving is the hardest thing with all the uncertainty it leads to. Yet, if they stay, how many more will die and suffer, what are they teaching their children about faith?

Women Talking is all about the minutes that these women are brainstorming their ideas, their emotions, their faith while it's all being written down by the only one they can trust who can. This is such a powerful novel, even for generations to come. Definitely needed in this time in our society as women are joining the #MeToo movement. Grab yourself a copy and take this emotional dive for yourself. You will feel like a fly on the wall of this barn loft as these women ponder their ideas and show their emotions. It's as if you are right there with them.
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Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on April 2, 2019

Women Talking is set in the imaginary Molotschna Colony in Bolivia, but the story is based on the real Manitoba Colony, where Mennonite women were drugged and raped over a period of years, their stories of waking up in pain dismissed as female fantasies or believed to be the work of demons who punished the women for their sins. The actual demons were several men in the colony, some of whom were related to the women they raped.

The novel posits that three hundred women were sprayed with an anesthetic used on farm animals and raped by eight men. A woman named Salome tried to kill them with a scythe, prompting the elders to have the men arrested for their own safety. Their families posted bail and they will now be returned, but what will the women do when they come back?

When the crimes were discovered, the perpetrators are jailed for their own safety, lest the women hack them to pieces with a scythe. As the men in the colony set about raising bail money for eight rapists, the women hold a meeting. The (male) elders have given the women the option of forgiving the men, thus assuring their place in Heaven, or leaving the colony and entering a world about which they know nothing, a prospect made more difficult by their illiteracy and unfamiliarity with any language except that spoken exclusively by Mennonites.

The women make their choice during a two-day discussion. The minutes are taken by August Epps, who gained an education after his family was excommunicated. Epps later returned and is seen by some as having his uses, although his lack of farming skills renders him useless in the eyes of most colonists.

The novel imagines how the women would discuss their difficult choice. They consider whether forgiveness is possible and whether there might be some sins so weighty that only God, and certainly not the victims, can be expected to forgive them. The women are expected to be obedient to their husbands, but since they have not been taught to read the Bible, they are no longer certain that obedience is actually something their faith commands. Perhaps the religion emphasizes love rather than obedience; they can’t be sure.

Most of the women have rejected the forgiveness option, and are now deciding whether they should leave or stay to fight their oppressors. But fighting — if the fight involves physical violence — would require them to violate the pacifist beliefs that are central to their religion. Still, a fight for gender equality need not be violent; the revolution could be bloodless.

If the women decide to leave, what impact will that decision have on the colony’s men, who might not all be inherently evil despite the “pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of their hearts and minds.” Some suggest that they take the younger boys with them and teach them not to be rapists.

The story generates drama and suspense as, on the second day, the reader wonders whether the women will actually abandon the colony and their older children and go forward into a world they are ill-equipped to understand. There is also tension in Epps’ personal story. Perhaps listening to brave women discuss their futures will have an impact on Epps’ fate.

These are heavy discussions but Miriam Toews lightens the mood with digressions and gossip and personality clashes. Women Talking is smart, sad, funny, completely engaging, and remarkably original.

RECOMMENDED
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Thank you NetGalley, Bloomsbury Publishing, and Miriam Toews for an ARC ebook copy to review. As always, an honest review from me. 

Like:
- Inspired by a real story the author heard about 
- Showcases a unique community of women 
- Repressed women are still trying to find a way to protect themselves and their family, and do what’s best for themselves
- A very unique book - the concept and the main focus of the story
- Perfect length (fairly short, but any longer would have been too much)

Love:
- Women supporting women (universal theme across most countries and cultures)

Dislike: 
- Harder to read (Mennonite women, so their language and education levels is much different than ours)
- Despite a lot of talking and many events, nothing seemed to happen

Wish that: 
- the story was more cohesive and had a better point 
- It made me want to read more - I put the book down for about a week and didn’t really care to pick it back up.
- I could relate to at least one of the women 

Overall, a unique read that I enjoyed but was not overly thrilled about due to a lack of connection with the characters.
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Woman Talking is a fictionalized narrative based on actual atrocities against a community of Mennonite women. 

The author chose to tell the story via a male narrator, reading back meeting minutes. Ultimately, this choice was the downfall of this book for me. I had a difficult time connecting to the story with a matter of fact perspective. The acts committed against these women were horrifying but, this manner of storytelling stripped away much of the emotion.
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Women Talking is exactly that - a conversation that takes place over several days.  It almost reads like a play or a talking head documentary.  I can not say I "enjoyed" this book.  What I can say is that it made me think. It made me look for the "rest of the story" as it's based upon actual circumstances.  The narrative style may not be comfortable for many readers, and I would think an audio book would be very difficult to follow.  I found myself needing to take several breaks away from Women Talking, that was the best way I could deal with my emotions while reading.  Women Talking would likely make a good book discussion selection, as I found myself wanting to discuss and debate what I had read. 
I received my copy through NetGalley under no obligation.
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Extraordinary. Heavy, as the book is full of philosophy and pain and depicts horrible acts occurring in a culture of patriarchy and misogyny to the extreme. But there’s also much light, with many funny moments and characters I completely loved, and these characters’ thoughts and choices felt searingly relevant. This is a book I will almost certainly reread (after I go back and read everything else Miriam Toews has written - this is my first of hers).
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There are some novels that just feel important when you read them, and "Women Talking" was just that way for me. Based on real events, the novel focuses on a group of women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia who 10 years ago began waking up in the mornings having been assaulted. Because women are like second class citizens (see "Handmaid's Tale"), they are told they are dreaming or are being punished by Satan. Later they learn it was a group of men in their own community who were spraying them with an animal sedative while they slept, and then beating and raping them. These events (affecting ages 3-65) are truly horrifying, but Toews brings grace and strength to the story by creating a fictional account of how the women would have worked to process their trauma. While the novel sometimes reads like more of a philosophical discussion, I was completely drawn into their plight. Do they leave their only home and risk making it alone in the outside world (even though they're unable to read even a map)? Or do they try to forgive and forget what was done to them? Although it's difficult to read, Toews never descends into salacious details, selectively including only some of the most painful and poignant moments the women experienced (many of them in the aftermath). This book is, in short, a powerful read, and one that will stick with me for a long time.
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This “reaction through fiction” and “act of female imagination” to real-life mass rapes that took place between 2005-2009 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia absolutely blew me away!

I know many readers have questioned the choice of a male-narrator to tell this story, though I think this is actually one of the strengths of the narrative for me. August is a minute taker of the meeting of the women, recording their meetings in the absence of them having the literacy skills to do so themselves. The women are meeting to discuss the options available to them to respond to the continued rapes that the men in the community have committed against them. Their discussions are profound and quite literally the first time in their life that they have the ability to  make their own decisions. As they weigh up the various options, we see the impact of the crimes committed against them, the legacy of that on their identity and perception of the community that they live in.

Alongside this, I think August’s narrative is very full-circle and pertinent to the discussions the women are having - while many are quick to dismiss his role in the story, I think the intentional act of having a male narrator was a clever plot construct. Considering the discussions about community legacy and inherited trauma, his very role in the narrative is incredibly powerful!

I absolutely adored Toews’ writing and want to devour her entire backlist immediately! What a talented writer and storyteller!
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I don't know how she does it but Toews manages to constantly offer new insights and surprising characters.
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Writing
I really appreciate Toews style choices in this book.  It's told as meeting minutes taken by the only man left in the colony (and the only one who knows how to write), who is also somewhat of an outsider.  I really enjoy stories that are told in an unconventional manner, so the minutes format appealed to me from the beginning and I think Toews was very successful in its use.  I enjoyed all of the characters, although I feel like characterization was secondary to the philosophical side of the book. 

Entertainment Value
This isn't really a character-driven or plot-driven novel, so if you're looking for one of those things, you'll probably find it slow.  It is, as it says, made up only of women talking.  We're listening in on their discussion of how to proceed given their horrific circumstances, which leads them to discuss what I think is the best part of the book - a very philosophical look at the nature of forgiveness and the responsibility for protecting oneself and one's children.  Toews addresses these big ideas from a religious standpoint, which is something that I don't think we see often in any writing and which I really enjoyed. Being put in the place of the women who are struggling to decide how to proceed really highlighted the ethical and moral dilemma (not to mention the practical dilemma) of how to protect themselves in a patriarchal colony where women have very little voice.

Overall
I ate this book up.  I think I read it in two sittings. It's not that it's a page turner in terms of plot, but I was just fascinated by the author's take on a very conservative and patriarchal religious sect in an extreme situation and the ethical side of the women's dilemma. If you're interested in religion or the topic of forgiveness or philosophical novels, this is one you must read.
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