31 July 2009

Review: The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

So Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans. I was expecting, because of previous experience with Toews' work, that this would be a story about Mennonites and possibly also the clash between their culture and Canadian culture. I wouldn't have been bothered if that's what I'd gotten because I quite enjoyed A Complicated Kindness and it's something that Toews does well, that sense of connection to a shared culture, while also trying to break free of it. I'd been pleased enough by what I read before that I didn't even read the back of this book before buying it.

The Flying Troutmans is a road trip novel. When her boyfriend leaves her for an ashram in India and her unstable sister Min needs to be admitted to a psych ward, Hattie Troutman finds herself suddenly in charge of her niece Thebes (11) and nephew Logan (15). She doesn't know what to do with them or how to deal with their behaviour so she decides to take them to North Dakota to find their father, Cherkis, who'd left the family (on Min's orders) years earlier. They end up in California before finding him, but as in any road novel I can think of it's really about finding oneself.

Opening paragraph:
Yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she'd been trying to take care of things but it wasn't working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn't know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principle, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan)… basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only eleven.

My memories of this book are pretty clouded and that's not a good thing since I finished it just two days ago. I don't know if it's that that book wasn't memorable, that the feeling rather than the events were more important (and so I'm left with good feelings but few memories), or that the books I'm reading now are so good that they've pushed out everything else already. Or all of it together.

This is such a lovely novel – it's comfortable and awkward, funny and heartbreaking, absurd and insightful. It strikes a real balance between all sorts of extremes, just ebbs and flows between them, and you slip along as a reader through all of it until you've come out the other side and hardly have noticed the journey at all. I enjoyed the reading of this immensely. I believed Hattie's voice throughout (and the kids for most of it). I felt good at this book – gut instinct told me to rate it high on my book catalogue sites. I did.

Two days later I wonder if maybe it’s a bit of an illusion – I'm not sure there is any real insight or message or whatever. Maybe there's not meant to be one. Or no, it's not even that. Maybe it's more that the "finding yourself" aspect of the road trip doesn't really play out. I'm not sure there really is any growth or change for any of the characters. Oh, I don't know. Whatever. What remains of my muddled mind is that it was immensely enjoyable to read, whatever it did or didn't do by the end. I read it in just a few short days because I kept picking it back up to read just a little more. The biggest bone I wanted to pick with Toews is her continued attachment to old-fashioned and/or ridiculous names and nicknames. There isn't always a Nomi, Lish, Hattie, or Thebes around every corner. Try a Jennifer, maybe. Or an Amanda.

If you're a reader, you could try this book. Maybe your brain could pick it all apart and say what is or isn't wrong with it a little better than I can. I bet you'd laugh, because it's funny, and I bet you'd enjoy it, because it's enjoyable.

Miriam Toews is the author of A Complicated Kindness, A Boy of Good Breeding, and Summer of My Amazing Luck, as well as a non-fiction book or two. She won a Governor General's award for A Complicated Kindness. She's also acted in a Mexican film, Luz silenciosa.

Toews, Miriam. The Flying Troutmans. Toronto: Vintage, 2009.
Finished: 28 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 plastic holsters with pistols
This was my 7th book in July and my 29th in 2009.

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