Women talking : a novel

by Miriam Toews

Paper Book, 2019

Publication

New York, NY : Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Description

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm. While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women-all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in-have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they've ever known or should they dare to escape? Based on real events and told through the "minutes" of the women's all-female symposium, Toews's masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ainjel
I feel like this is such an important little book, of the value of collectivity, of the power in women talking, of the resilience of oppressed groups. Not only is this a story I have never heard before, but it is told through voices that feel familiar. I'm so interested in the fact that a book about women talking is told from a male voice-- and even when this is explained in the text and the logical reasoning is given, it still makes me think.

There is so much going on here. I really hope people take the chance to read it because it's something special.
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LibraryThing member oldblack
Oh no! I so much wanted to like this book, after having loved a couple of other works by this author. This novel, however, is not for me. I'm sure it's good writing, and for the right reader it's probably a wonderful meaningful story. But I played the Nancy Pearl card and took it back to the library. Maybe I'm just the wrong gender or perhaps haven't been through the sorts of things that women everywhere experience.… (more)
LibraryThing member Romonko
This is a fictionalized account of a real-life occurrence.
"Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote religious Mennonite colony, over a hundred girls and women were knocked unconscious and raped, often repeatedly, by what many thought were ghosts or demons, as a punishment for their sins." As it turned out, 8 men from the colony were responsible for these attacks, and they were arrested and sent to prison for their crimes. But some of the girls that attacked were as young as three, and, as can be imagined, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and PTSD were rampant. This book tells us how 8 fictional women meet together in a hayloft, and how they plan to protect themselves and their children by leaving the colony. The book is written as minutes of the meetings that were held in that hayloft. None of the 8 women could read, so they recruited a man to do the recording for them. The book unfolds as August Epp, who is a teacher in the colony, begins to fully understand what these women have been putting up with for many years. It's a story of survival and a story of women taking back their power over their own destinies. It's a difficult book to read, but it's an affirmation of the strength of women and also a testimonial to their determination to do whatever it takes to save their children and grandchildren. Miriam Toews does a masterful job of putting this down in writing, and with her stark prose, and her wonderful grasp of getting to the main issue, this book is a must-read for women today. The "me-too" society has brought all this to the forefront these days, so the book is timely and appropriate.… (more)
LibraryThing member dianneritz
A story of Mennonite women from Molotschna near the Black Sea, who are abused by their men, sexually, physically, verbally. They plan to leave the colony after their men, who had been arrested for their crimes, were being released to return. Five women talk, and plan their escape - reasons to stay, reasons to leave.
LibraryThing member c.archer
Where to start? This is a unique and tiny time capsule in the life of this group of Mennonite women. They have been trying to make up their minds about some decisions about their lives after months of having been drugged and sexually violated by male members of their patriarchal community. They have been dominated all their lives by men-forbidden to go to school or learn to read. They have no say in their community, but plenty to say amongst themselves.
Eight of the women meet over two evenings while the men are away and discuss their options. Should they leave, stay and acquiesce, or stay and fight the men. Their meetings make up the near entirety of the book. The conversations amongst themselves are lively and entertaining, but certainly the reality of disparate women unleashed to discuss a topic candidly. The one variable here is that they aren’t alone. They have enlisted the help of the male schoolteacher to take minutes which they have no ability to read.
I found the topic of this book interesting, yet in reality it didn’t live up to my expectations. The women were victims, yet some seemed willing to accept their role as pawns to the men in the community. They often came off as petty and self-righteous among themselves, and were constantly driven off track by minor irritations and random comments. I was surprised to find that I was more accepting of their indulgences as I read on. It was interesting how much I could get to know and appreciate the characters of these women just through these two evenings. I found myself caring about their choices and outcome by the end of the book after being more than a bit exasperated at the start.
The real wild card in this book was the character of August, the teacher, and his role as secretary for the women and narrator of the story. It is obvious that he has an affinity for one of the women that seems mutual. The other women either find him to be sympathetic or at least tolerable. Several times they ask him for his opinion or allow him to share a comment. Still, he is one of the men, and as such has no part in their decision. The author’s placement of him in this role seems a bit of a paradox.
Interestingly, this story is based on a real event. The author does seem to have a purpose behind her version the story. It made me think and will probably stay with me awhile. If for no other reason, I liked the book and would give it 3.5 stars.
I hesitate to recommend this title to everyone. I think it’s for a select audience of readers who enjoy books that make them look at things in a different way. It might work for certain book clubs, but will probably be a “did not finish” for many readers. I would suggest that anyone who gives it a try commit to persevering through to the end. You won’t find it to be a climactic one, but you won’t get the full flavor of the writing without finishing. It is absolutely not a book for action or thrill oriented readers!
My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this title.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Thank you, Schatje, for your excellent review (see below). I am very moved by this novel about women living in a patriarchal world. They are abused, not valued, deliberately kept ignorant of the world, even how to read or write. In this novel, based on a real case of systematic rape, the women are deciding what to do as the perpetrators are about to return to the colony. They could stay and fight for their safety and rights, or they could leave the colony. What struck me is how principled the women are in considering their options, how deep their faith remains, how important they consider what is best for themselves, their children, and even the men of the colony. This is an excellent examination of the affects of extreme patriarchy, and a good story of courage and moral strength.… (more)
LibraryThing member hubblegal
This book is based on a real-life event, which makes it all the more shocking. Between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of girls and women were raped by eight men from the Mennonite colony they were all part of. The men used an animal anesthetic to knock out their victims and then raped them. At first, the women didn’t know they had been raped but only that they would wake up in the morning feeling exhausted with their bodies bloody and beaten. They were told that ghosts or demons had done it as punishment for their sins or that they were lying or covering up adulterous affairs or that it was all in their imagination. Very young children were included in these rapes, as well as elderly women. Some of the women became pregnant. In 2011, the accused men were convicted. Even after the arrest of these eight men, the attacks still took place.

In Ms. Toews’ book, eight of the raped women meet in a hayloft to discuss what they should do to prevent themselves and their daughters from further harm. Should they stay and fight or should they leave? They had a window of opportunity as the men were off trying to raise money for the accused men’s bail. These women were never told how to read or write and knew nothing about reading a map or where they could go. They were told if they could not forgive these men, they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So they had a lot to discuss. If a women whose 3-year-old child had been raped couldn’t forgive in her heart, wasn’t it a worse sin to say she forgave the men even if she didn’t mean it? The women in this community were just commodities to these men and had no say in anything. In reading this book, it was hard to believe that this happened in 2005-2009 and wasn’t something occurring centuries ago.

The author does such an excellent job of delving into the hearts and minds of these courageous women. I felt their fear and their heartache and their confusion as to what they should do to make their lives bearable. The suspense builds as the time for the men to return nears. In trying to decide what they should do, they have lengthy discussions about religion and faith. There were times they seemed to forget the urgency of their situation and lectured each other. There’s some humor in this book, despite its dark subject. It’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. Don’t expect much of a plot as the book is just what the title says it is – women talking. I think it was quite exceptional and destined to become a feminist classic. Not all readers will like the format of this book but the emotional depth of this story is just astounding.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member mzonderm
A small group of women gather to decide what to do after it is revealed that they, along with most other women and girls in their community, have been repeatedly drugged and raped by the men of their small Mennonite colony. Will they forgive the men, stay and fight, or leave the colony? Their discussions range over what it means to have the freedom to choose, whether one can be a pacifist if one harbors a desire a kill, how best to protect one's children, and many more philosophical topics.

It was somewhat jarring that a book that seemed as though it was to be about female empowerment was told from a man's perspective, but it worked. He is privy to the women talking as an amanuensis; none of the women can read or write, but want their deliberations preserved for posterity. He's an outsider in the colony, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but his outsider status allows the women to trust him for this task, and makes him appropriately sensitive to them, in a way that no other man of their acquaintance could, or would, be.

And perhaps this is a realistic notion of what could happen when such an insulated group of people is threatened in this way. But I found it troubling to read about a group of women facing such a threat to themselves and their children and spending two days sitting in a hayloft debating the finer points of free will, rather than making actual plans. The lack of action in the books gives it a claustrophobic feel, which seems appropriate under the circumstances, and that feeling of clautrophobia helps keep the pressure on throughout the narrative, having the effect of sucking the reader through the story, rather in the manner of a pneumatic tube.

So what will the women decide to do, and will they be able to follow through on that decision? That is what they are talking about, and the question of whether they will be able to sieze their freedom, no matter what they decide, will leave the reader thinking long after the last page.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
Based on horrifying true events, Miriam Toews felt compelled to tell this story about these women. After women in a Mennonite colony in Boliva realize they are being attacked at night by the men, with the help of belladonna (and it isn't the devil visiting them to make them pay for their sins) they have to decide whether to Do Nothing, Stay and Fight or Leave. The book relates the fictional discussion the women have. The book seems equally split between nine characters: the eight women talking and a man: August Epp, who is taking the minutes of the discussion as the women can not read or write, and because of this is the first person narrator. Having a male narrator in this book was an interesting choice, especially when part of what the women were talking about was that they wanted to have the right to their own thoughts and voices. But August is only the best possible male narrator, as he has been to the outside world is also very sensitive to what is going on, being a very caring man. Another odd choice was having August be in love with one of the women, though he was in love with her at a very young age. Possibly the book might have been a bit more manageable and smooth going with six women talking? Up to the end, the details parceled out are superb -- seemed really nicely planned. I love the detail of the bishop playing games on his cellphone while others work the fields, when none of them are even allowed rubber tires on their buggies because it might enable a faster escape. Based on such darkness, there is a lovely way that Toews observes even the smallest of details, much like Ona, one of the main characters. At one point, the women ask August to write "a list of good things" which is all one can do sometimes in oppressive unbearable situations: appreciate the small, good things. Personally, somehow I had never heard that any of these events happened, so I think Miriam Toews definitely should have written this book: it does give a voice to these women, especially as Toews herself was once in a Mennonite community. However, I think the only people who can truly judge this book, are those that lived the real life version.

**Note: My advance reading copy had some major typos involving dates, which was VERY confusing, and took me out of the book a bit, so that was destined to create a diminished reading experience for me. I wasn't sure where I could check the actual dates in the finished copy, considering the book isn't published in the US until April. I tried contacting marketing but they weren't much help and that was the only e-mail address I had. The detail that was confusing: On the first pages of the book, it is said that the 'minutes' of the meeting are being taken in real time (as 'minutes' usually are) on June 6 and 7 2009. 2009 is mentioned on the early page 'minutes of the women talking'. But on page 99, when this is still supposed to be 2009 (as far as I can tell), August is talking about a newspaper article with a headline "in 2011". So this makes it sound like the minutes aren't being taken in 2009? If anyone can clarify, I'd appreciate it.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Miriam Toews's novel Women Talking is about just that: over the course of a few days in 2009, eight ultraconservative Mennonite women living in a remote colony in Bolivia talk about what do in the aftermath of a series of brutal rapes that seem to have affected every woman and girl they know. As they see it, they have three options: they can stay and forgive their menfolk (the perpetrators), stay and fight them, or leave the colony to protect themselves and their children. The colony's women are illiterate and only speak an old form of German, so they ask an "effeminate" man of the colony to take meeting minutes for them in English, even though they can't read them (this part of the premise I found a little implausible, but without it there wouldn't be a story.

The women talk about the patriarchy that oppresses them. They rightly deduce that the rape is a crime of power, not of sex. The women are concerned with the spiritual implications of the crimes are discussed as well.

For a book without much on-stage action, Toews succeeds in building up genuine suspense. Will the women stay or go?

Despite its brief length, Women Talking is somewhat slow going. Nonetheless, it rewards the time it takes to read it.
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LibraryThing member lilibrarian
A group of men in a small isolated Mennonite community drugged and raped women and girls of all ages. The clan's leader told the women that the devil was visiting them in dreams. Now that they have discovered this to be a lie, they must decide whether to forgive the men and stay in their homes, fight, or leave. This book is the minutes of their meetings. Based on a true occurrence.… (more)
LibraryThing member ecataldi
DAYUM! This book was eye opening and painful to read. The writing was wonderful but the subject matter itself was so hard to stomach, even more so because even though this story is fictionalized, it's based off of true events. Between 2005 and 2009 hundreds of Mennonite women and children were drugged in their sleep and raped. The small Mennonite colonies thought that demons and ghosts were violating them in their sleep, when they reported it to their husbands and fathers no one believed it at first, when women started taking to each other they realized that it wasn't just them, nearly all women (regardless of age) were being attacked in the night and then waking up violated with blood and semen on their thighs and bed. The rapes continued happening until a woman caught two of the attackers sneaking into her house before they could knock her out with the Belladonna spray. The men were then arrested (for their own safety), but the woman found no solace. They were soon told that in order to get to heaven they had to forgive their attackers and allow them back into the community. Women Talking is a fictionalized account of the women meeting and trying to talk out their feelings and their best plan of action for when the men return. They decide that they have three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave . Over the course of two days they discuss the pros and cons of each and in the process reveal their deepest, fears, concerns, and questions of faith. It's heartbreaking, empowering, and a must read. Wonderful, albeit upsetting.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
In a remote Mennonite community in South America, women, girls and even toddlers are waking up with unexplained injuries and coming down with inexplicable STDs. The leader of the community explains it to them that they were violated by demons as the consequences of their own sin, but it is eventually discovered that some of the men are drugging the women and then raping them while they are unconscious. Despite all efforts, the attacks continue until outside authorities are brought in. They arrest the rapists and take them to the city, but the remaining men decide that the best course of action is to go bail the men out and bring them back to the community. During the men's absence, the women come together to discuss what they can do. This is an account of those meetings.

The most terrifying aspect of this novel is that it is based on true events.

Toews presents a group ill-prepared for life outside of the Mennonite community. Unlike men, who receive a very basic education, the women are illiterate and don't even know what lies beyond their own lands. They know that they will be expected to forgive the attackers and struggle with whether this is even possible. This is a thoughtful book, carefully representing a faith community that is little known to outsiders. It's also a very quiet, contained novel, despite the lurid subject matter. In the end, the question the women must collectively decide is whether to stay or to leave, and as they grapple with the possible consequences of both actions, a slow consensus builds.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
I thoroughly enjoyed Women Talking. The story may not be what readers expect. It starts after the abuse and ends before the readers know exactly what happens to them. It is truly just the period of time when the women are talking. The book is great because of the content and how it makes the reader feel and think. One can't help but to think how they would react in this situation - it's unimaginable. The writing is a bit circular, but I didn't find it distracting from the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
The fact that this novel is based on a true story makes me shudder. It takes place in a Bolivian village occupied by a Mennonite community. There have been a series of what are described as "ghost rapes" where women and girls as young as three (!) have been sexually assaulted after being drugged while they sleep during the night. After much hesitation by the man at the head of this sect, the police are finally called in to investigate and several men have been arrested.

While all of the men are either under arrest or away at the main city where the men are being held trying to arrange bail, the male school teacher is secretly taking the minutes of the meeting of the women involved as they try to list the pros and cons of leaving or staying. The problems are immense. They are illiterate for the most part and have never set foot outside of their small community. As they discuss their choices it becomes obvious that the patriarchy has left them defenseless and with few options. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Lauranthalas
Unpopular opinion - this just wasn‘t for me. Maybe because the “narrator” was male; I wanted more about the female characters; for being so short it seemed redundant.

It‘s horrific to think this is based off real life events and I applaud the author for bringing what happened to light.… (more)
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
Over a period of years, Mennonite women were repeatedly raped at night. What they believed to be demons, turned out to be a group of men from their own community. Using an animal tranquilizer, the men would spray into the house, and then rape the women. This book takes place after the men are caught and imprisoned. The women are trying to decide whether to stay in the community or leave.

Although this was an interesting story, I did not like the writing style. The book just talked in circles. There was very little forward movement. All of the characters blended together, no one seemed to have a unique voice. Overall, a bust.
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Pages

216

ISBN

9781635572582
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