Canadian novelist Miriam Toews returns to the subject of Mennonite teenage girls in Irma Voth. Living in a Mennonite enclave in northern Mexico, 19-year-old Irma has been shunned for marrying a local man who abandons her soon after the marriage. Despite her father’s bullying and threats, Irma remains in touch with her mother and younger sister, Aggie. When a notable Mexican filmmaker comes to town to make a movie about the insular religious community, Irma is hired as a translator. To her Mennonite neighbors, Irma’s collaboration proves almost as outrageous as her marriage, and she finds herself at odds with many in the community. It is not long before Irma starts thinking about leaving Mexico altogether and bringing her sister with her.
The novel comes alive in the beautifully handled relationship between the overburdened Irma and the carefree Aggie, who unlike Irma has been able to achieve an emotional distance from her parents. While she and Aggie make their move, Irma struggles to solve the twin mysteries of the family’s initial move to Mexico from Canada and the whereabouts of her older sister, Katie.
Irma Voth may be the most emotionally complex of Toews’ novels. Irma is determined to create a different life for her sisters, but is frustrated by her own feelings of guilt and regret, having inherited her father’s view that the girls were responsible for his abusive behavior. Irma recounts her life with a direct yet artful stream-of-consciousness, and the reader never feels far from her thoughts, whether they are passing observations or her deepest emotions.
Toews based this novel on her own experience working in Mexico with director Carlos Reygadas on the film Silent Light. There she observed firsthand the interaction between the filmmakers and the Mennonite community, descendents from the small group who had first emigrated from Canada in the 1920s in search of religious freedom. Though the combination is almost surreal, this clash of cultures proves truth can often be stranger than fiction.