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Book Review: 'Women Talking'

Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, girls and women would wake in the morning feeling lightheaded and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding. For years, residents of the colony thought demons were attacking the women in the night. Some felt God was punishing them for their sins. Others attributed the episodes to “wild female imagination.”

What actually happened – and this is a true story – is that men from the reclusive colony had been drugging women with anesthetic and raping them. Eventually, eight men were arrested in connection to the crimes. And that’s where Miriam Toews’ novel begins.

In Women Talking, the Canadian author crafts a fictional response to this disturbing news event that begins after the attackers’ arrest. While the colony’s bishop and most other men leave town to arrange bail for the rapists, eight women meet in a hayloft to decide what to do next. As they see it, they have three options: do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. They can’t read or write, so a man named August Epp is appointed to take minutes of the hayloft sessions.

What follows is an intense story that touches on issues of theology, loyalty and feminine strength. Toews doesn’t shy away from dark subjects – a previous novel, All My Puny Sorrows, focused on grief and suicide – but she exquisitely weaves bits of humanity and even humor into this tale. When the women propose crafting a manifesto, August explains that some are revolutionary. “No, no . . . We are not revolutionaries,” says Agata, one of the women. “We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.”

In many ways, Women Talking reads like a real-life Handmaid’s Tale – author Margaret Atwood said so herself on Twitter – but it deserves its own spot in the canon of modern feminist literature.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.