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Irma Voth [Hardcover]

Miriam Toews
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
List Price: CDN$ 29.95
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Book Description

April 5 2011

From the award-winning author of A Complicated Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and culturally isolated from the surrounding towns and cities. It’s been six years since her family up and left Canada to escape the prying eyes of the government and preserve their religious freedom, but Irma still misses the minor freedoms she had in their small town. She even misses the cold. This new life has not been an easy one, and Irma finds herself deserted by her husband of one year, who has left to pursue a life of drug-running, instead of working her family’s farm. The most devastating blow for Irma is that he didn’t take her with him, take her away, so now she’s left to live under her father’s domineering rule alone.
Things change for Irma when a film crew moves into the empty house next door. They’ve come to make a movie about the Mennonite community, and have made a deal with Irma’s father to stay on their land. The director enlists Irma to work for them as a translator, as she can speak not only Spanish and English but Plattdeutsch, or Low German, the language of her people. At first bemused by the ragged and absurd crewmembers, Irma comes to embrace the passion and creative freedom of their world – but in doing so brings on the wrath of her father, who is determined to keep her from it at all costs. When Irma’s thirteen-year-old sister Aggie begins to come by and spend time with the crew, their father is sent over the edge with rage, and Irma is forced to make a hard decision to save not only herself, but her younger sister, and to break the dark chain of violence holding her family.
The girls flee to the city, not knowing where they’ll find food or shelter, let alone build a life, but knowing for the first time that they are free to make that choice. And even as they begin to understand the truth of the tragedy that has their family in its grip, Irma and Aggie use their love as a source of strength to help each other move on from their past lives and work toward a future that can truly become anything they want it to be.

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Product Description


“Toews . . . is clearly an artistic powerhouse. . . .  In this compelling and beautiful novel, Toews’s quirky and authentic voice shows increasing range and maturity. She is well on her way to fulfilling her promise as an important and serious writer.”
The Gazette

“There is something quite mesmerizing about Toews’s prose. It’s to do with the rhythm of her language, with the seeming effortlessness of it and, when combined with her quick, offhand wit, it can enliven even the darkest of moments.”
— Toronto Star
“Toews’s ability to generate comedy and heartache at the same time just soars.”
— Maclean’s
Irma Voth is wryly funny and perceptive.”
— National Post
“It is beautiful, strange, and fascinating, and readers wise enough to trust in the author’s sure hand will be rewarded with a novel that takes them someplace altogether unexpected.”
— Kerry Clare, Quill & Quire
“A beautiful, heartbreaking novel. . . . Calls to mind Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1996 epic, Fall On Your Knees.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“A stunning culture clash between the Mennonite and art communities. . . . The internal conflict over when to reveal hard information, in life or in art, is one of Toews’s key themes. A sequence about how it feels to tell the truth is a knockout.”
— NOW (Toronto) NNNN

From the Back Cover

That rare coming-of-age story able to blend the dark with the uplifting, Irma Voth follows a young Mennonite woman, vulnerable yet wise beyond her years, who carries a terrible family secret with her on a remarkable journey to survival and redemption.

Nineteen-year-old Irma lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico. She has already been cast out of her family for marrying a young Mexican ne’er-do-well she barely knows, although she remains close to her rebellious younger sister and yearns for the lost intimacy with her mother. With a husband who proves elusive and often absent, a punishing father, and a faith in God damaged beyond repair, Irma appears trapped in an untenable and desperate situation. When a celebrated Mexican filmmaker and his crew arrive from Mexico City to make a movie about the insular community in which she was raised, Irma is immediately drawn to the outsiders and is soon hired as a translator on the set. But her father, intractable and domineering, is determined to destroy the film and get rid of the interlopers. His action sets Irma on an irrevocable path toward something that feels like freedom.

A novel of great humanity, written with dry wit, edgy humor, and emotional poignancy, Irma Voth is the powerful story of a young woman’s quest to discover all that she may become in the unexpectedly rich and confounding world that lies beyond the stifling, observant community she knows.

--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Trippy April 17 2011
By Moon
When I say trippy, I say that Toews transports you to a different world. Both on the farm and in the city, you hear, smell and see the sights, sounds and odors of whole different world. Reading this book on an overly cold spring day allowed me to escape into a world that is far from a beach resort in Cancoun. The austerity that pushes down on Irma feels relentless and if wasn't for her unyielding pluck the book could become oppressive or even claustrophobic. And just when you are wondering which side will win, a three letter sentence at the close of a chapter- gives every word a brand new meaning and opens a whole new story. This book takes you for a ride- an adventure that is both believable and fantastic all at once. Personally, I fed off Irma's strength and felt that if she can do what she is doing, then I might as well keep on waking up every day and believing something phenomenal might come my way too. Toews' voice is marvelous. Her books are a pleasure and joy to read. And that gentleness, that lightness allows you to go with her wherever she wishes to take you- and the darker the more textured and the more disturbed the greater the challenge and impact. A wonderful book- worth every second of reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprising and touching! May 31 2011
I just loved this book. The plot was unexpected and had many twists and turns and the main characters went through so many changes and so much development, I found myself thinking about them long after I had finished the book. It's a page turner, and a poem. Just such a good read.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mennonites in Mexico May 27 2011
By Nicola Mansfield HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Reason for Reading: I adored "The Flying Troutmans" and wanted to try another book by the author.

Irma Voth is about a family who are Mennonites but ultimately that is not a big issue in the story; they could really be any very rural, backwoods type of people as the Voths are pretty much loners and there is not a lot of Mennonite community activities or lifestyle portrayed in the book.

The Voths are originally from Canada but one day they picked up and moved to a Mennonite Community in Mexico. They live remotely, on land where the father owns three houses. We meet Irma as her husband is leaving her. Irma has been shunned by her father because she eloped and married a Mexican. They live in one of his houses and work his land for free but he does not speak with them. Irma's husband comes back every now and then as he is involved in the drug trade and he keeps his "goods" in the barn. A famous Mexican director comes to the area and rents the third house on the property for his crew as he makes a movie about Mennonites. The father hates everything these people stand for but his youngest daughter becomes curious and sneaks away to watch them. Irma is offered a job as translator since she speaks German, Mexican and English, which she excepts, since she has no income and no husband now. The plan is to eventually leave the stranglehold of her father.

There is no denying that Toews is a beautiful writer who has a lyric way with words and can add a touch of wit to scenes where it is least expected. The story is a slow moving one, not one to be rushed, even though I did read it within the time frame of a day. I find it hard to review this book because I'm not ecstatic about the story but neither did I dislike it. I never really connected with the characters.
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3.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts... July 9 2011
By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER
Had I not read a review promising that "Irma Voth" picks up after 140 pages, I may well have given up long before that. Indeed, the narrative moves idly at first: the eponymous protagonist, nineteen years old and abandoned by her husband, lands a job translating and cooking for a film crew that has descended upon her Mennonite community in rural Mexico. As Irma struggles to find her place in the world, the reader struggles through the thoughtful but minimalist prose that narrates Irma's story.

Finally, Irma's involvement in the film leads her to flee her tyrannical father's compound with her sister, Aggie. When the girls tell their mother their plan, she hands them her newborn to take along. Here, the novel gains momentum and becomes infinitely more interesting but also implausible. Irma's father may not value girls though it's hard to imagine that her mother would consider a newborn safer in the company of two teenagers running away to Mexico City than in her own home. The world the girls discover on their journey is foreign and intimidating but also unrealistically accommodating; things fall into place a little too easily.

Despite weaknesses in her plot, Miriam Toews ultimately creates an interesting character study of a young woman dealing with abandonment and tremendous guilt brought on by a terrible family secret, the reason the family left its native Canada. Toews not only asks, how do we forgive ourselves? but also, can words transcend their literal meanings? Irma may never answer these questions but she does come to value her own worth and to appreciate her own expression. As she writes in her notebook, "I love the sound my new pen makes on the paper and the thickness of the pages. It terrifies me.'
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Critique June 23 2011
By Aurise
I have read most of Miriam Toews' books. I found this one very slow in piquing my interest. I read to page 150 or so, before I could get interested in the story. The tale is rather tragic, but the action is much too slow to develop. I don't think that I would recommend this book to my friends.

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