Irma Voth by Miriam Toews is a coming of age story – the story of Irma Voth, a Mennonite from Canada who is transplanted with her family for reasons not clear to a farm in the Mexican countryside. She has an abusive father and a husband, who after a year of marriage, leaves her for reasons that are less than clear –
“Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned to be a better wife . . . I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practice with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness . . . he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.”
Shortly after Jorge departs, the film makers move into the home next door to Irma’s home. Irma meets Diego, the director of the film, who hires Irma to act as a translator for his leading, albeit disfunctional, actress who speaks only German. Meanwhile, Irma’s father is outraged by the film making and embarks on a path to stop it at all costs. His efforts threaten the life of Irma’s younger sister, Aggie, and, in desperation, Irma flees to Mexico City with Aggie and their newborn sister, Ximena – with their mother’s blessing.
Once in Mexico City, Irma finds a home and a job, school for Aggie, and help with Ximena. It is at this point that the reader learns of the reality of a tragedy previously alluded to early on in the book, which suddenly explains so much of Irma’s prior behavior, including her belief, at the age of thirteen, that she is dead – “Do you feel that you were born and lived and then you died or that you have never lived at all? he asked I was born and lived and then died, I said. So, he said, do you think that you’re in heaven? I don’t know, I said. What makes you feel like you are dead? he said. Are you numb in some parts of your body? No, I said. I don’t know.” In relating to that tragedy and an even greater one that follows the screening of the film, Irma is able to focus on her feelings, bringing about a striking conclusion.
There are some points where the banter between Irma and Aggie is so great with sarcasm (love that kind of humor) and some of Irma’s revisions to the movie script are hysterical. There is also a beautiful scene where, having been told by Irma how much she misses the wind and stars of the countryside, Aggie recreates that in their small room in Mexico City –
” Aggie had covered the windows with thick, dark material she had found somewhere, maybe it was painted cardboard from school, and had used a pin or something tiny to prick hundreds of holes into the blackness to create sunlit stars. I took a step into the darkness and bumped into something hard. It was a floor fan, a small one, that Aggie must have tied strips of newspaper to and the fan was blowing them to make a noise like wind.”
Harper Collins provided a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
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