Not that long ago, it seemed I was unconsciously being drawn to books about Paris, now it seems the draw is to Mexico. This may be my subconscious telling me to take a holiday, but until that happens, I'm rather enjoying the different approaches authors take to writing about similar places. With Paris, I read a novel set in contemporary Paris and then one set in 1920s Paris. With Mexico, I did things the other way around, although I certainly didn't plan it that way. The strange thing, though, is that even if I hadn't started with Dr. Brinkley's Tower, I would have had a kind of window into early Mexico because Irma Voth by Miriam Toews is about a Mennonite family.
In particular, Toews follows her titular character, Irma, a Mennonite woman who rebels against her strict father and secretly marries a Mexican. As a result, she is simultaneously shunned and shackled. Her family is forbidden from making contact with her; however, she is forbidden from leaving, and her father gives her and her husband the house next door, in return for which they will milk the cows for free. Then her husband leaves, without offering much of an explanation, and Irma is alone in her dark house. Naturally, this is when everything in her life changes. A film crew moves into the house next to Irma's. They are making a movie about Mennonites in Mexico and need a translator; Irma speaks English (she was born in Canada and lived in Manitoba until her family abruptly moved when was 13), Spanish, and Low German, so she is hired to work with the film's female lead, a Mennonite from Germany who doesn't speak Spanish. For a society adamantly against photographs, a movie is extremely controversial, and Irma's father forbids her to work with the crew.
But what else can Irma do? Her husband is gone and the only work she does is for her father for no pay. So she keeps working for Diego the filmmaker, explaining to Marijke what Diego wants her do in each shot, and offering her alternative lines to speak in Low German. Then Irma's younger sister Aggie starts to get curious. Aggie is rebellious and curious and 13, and when she starts to hang around the house with the film crew, Irma knows she will be in trouble. When Aggie eventually goes home late after a long day with Irma and the crew, Irma hears singing from her parents' house and immediately rushes in to break up with beating she instinctively understands her father is inflicting on Aggie. The next day, her father tells her he has sold her house.
Irma knows she can't send Aggie back to her parents' house, so she does the only thing she can, she takes Aggie and plans a getaway. When they go to say goodbye to their mother, she asks Irma to take her newborn baby sister too, so Aggie, Irma, and baby Ximena leave a note for Diego and then borrow his truck to drive to the airport. They don't have passports to go to Canada, so they go to Mexico City. They have no plan and little money, but they know they can't go back.
At least part of this book is based on Toews own experience working on a movie about Mennonites in Mexico. She herself grew up a Mennonite in Manitoba, although she has since left the community. All of that gives Irma Voth a feeling lived experience, rather one of research. Irma is an amazing character, and her relationship with Aggie is so natural and filled with a mix of sisterly love and antagonism and it leaps off the page. Below that, though, lies a layer of guilt over her failed marriage and the reason the family left Canada, that floats below everything Irma does in the novel. Thus the humour is tempered and the pain is lifted and Irma's conflicted path to a sort of redemption unfolds all the more beautifully for its subtlety. The entire novel develops in such an organic and lovely way that it almost doesn't feel like you're reading at all.
by Miriam Toews
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)