Between 2005 and 2009 in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls (as young as 3) regularly woke up groggy and bruised, their sheets smeared with blood and semen. Some members of the conservative patriarchal community blamed demons; others attributed these reports to “wild female imagination.” In reality, nine men in the close-knit community had been breaking into houses every few nights, spraying the sleeping inhabitants with a drug designed to anesthetize cattle and raping them while they lay unconscious.
This real-life horror story inspired Miriam Toews’s scorching sixth novel, “Women Talking,” set in the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna, where nearly every girl and woman has been raped. But don’t expect a crime novel full of detail about the assaults, and don’t expect an excavation of the survivors’ emotional experience. Toews skips over the rapes and the apprehension of the rapists, cutting straight to existential questions facing the women in the aftermath. “Women Talking” is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will, collective responsibility, cultural determinism and, above all, forgiveness. As Agata Friesen, an unflappable matriarch, puts it: “Let’s talk about our sadness after we have nailed down our plan.”
They don’t have a lot of time. The men of Molotschna have traveled to town to bail the rapists out of jail. Should the women still be there when the men return? In a mouse-infested hayloft, sitting on overturned milk buckets, the women drink instant coffee, joke, smoke, weep, endure bouts of morning sickness (one of the women was impregnated by an “unwelcome visitor,” as the colony’s male elders call the rapists) and debate what a better future might look like.
The narrator is the local schoolteacher, August Epp, who grew up Mennonite and speaks Plautdietsch, but also lived for many years outside the community. The women recruit him to take minutes at their meetings because they can’t read or write; they trust him because he is, as one woman says, “an effeminate man who is unable to properly till a field or eviscerate a hog.” In other words, harmless. Like his introspective fourth-century namesake, August was once paralyzed by guilt over stealing some pears, and he’s prone to extravagant bouts of self-loathing. When August broods on his own sorrows, the novel sags. When he transcribes what these angry women say to one another, it crackles.
The women have come up with three competing plans. They can remain in the colony and live exactly as they did before the assaults, they can stay and fight for change or they can hitch up their buggies and leave. Although they disagree constantly and sharply, there’s one point on which they concur: They have been treated like animals — and it didn’t start with the rapes. “When our men have used us up so that we look 60 when we’re 30 and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters,” a woman named Salome says. “And if they could sell us all at auction afterwards they would.” Fierce, articulate Salome often gets the last word, but the novel is a choral ensemble piece in which each woman chimes in with a distinctive voice.
Toews, who was raised Mennonite and left the church at 18, depicts the women at the center of the novel with insight, sympathy and respect. Their conversation is loose, unpredictable, occasionally profane and surprisingly funny. The best parts of the narrative consist of women asking questions and other women answering, with little description or editorializing from August. Practical concerns loom large. How will the women survive if they leave? As Agata says: “We’re unable to read, we’re unable to write, we’re unable to speak the language of our country, we have only domestic skills that may or may not be required of us elsewhere in the world, and speaking of the world — we have no world map.” A tentative point in favor of leaving: “We will see a little bit of the world?” On the list of cons: “We won’t be forgiven.”
But while the practical obstacles to leaving are formidable, the philosophical questions are at the heart of the discourse. The women of Molotschna haven’t read Plato, but they’ve got the principles of Socratic dialogue down cold. Given that biblical law mandates women obey their husbands, chain-smoking Mejal wonders if it isn’t a sin to leave them. Salome retorts that it is impossible to disobey a Bible that none of them have ever actually read. Agata pronounces: “Our faith requires of us absolute commitment to pacifism, love and forgiveness. By staying, we risk these things. We will be at war with our attackers because we’ve acknowledged that we — well, some of us — want to kill them.” Salome, who went after the rapists with a scythe, scoffs at the idea of an “absolute commitment” to love: “A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.”
But if Salome stays in the colony, she will not be allowed even her tiny nugget of hate. The community’s leader, Bishop Peters, has decreed that if the rapists ask to be forgiven, the women must forgive them. If they don’t, the men will be barred from heaven and the women excommunicated, forfeiting their own places in the celestial kingdom. Is coerced forgiveness even forgiveness? wonders dreamy, eccentric Ona, whom Peters has nicknamed “the Devil’s daughter.” Maybe they shouldn’t worry too much about getting into heaven, Salome grumbles, as there are no chores up there, so beasts of burden probably aren’t even allowed.
One of the biggest questions is the degree to which all the men in Molotschna are responsible (or not) for what the rapists did. “Perhaps not all men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds,” Ona says. But doesn’t this view actually exonerate the rapists? Doesn’t it suggest, as one of the women puts it, “that all of us, men and women, are victims of the circumstances from which Molotschna has been created?”
By loosening the tongues of disenfranchised women and engaging them in substantive dialogue about their lives, Toews grants them agency they haven’t enjoyed in life. By refusing to focus on the crimes that launched this existential reappraisal, she treats them as dignified individuals rather than props in a voyeuristic entertainment. The only problem with this approach is that the grotesque and bizarre crime wave that launches the narrative remains all but unfathomable. It looms in the background, begging to be dramatized and explained. You don’t need an appetite for the salacious to want to know how a handful of men could rape dozens of women in a close-knit community, year after year, undetected. And you can appreciate this smart novel of ideas while also wanting to know how the women might have felt about this profound and intimate betrayal even before they started talking.