Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swing Low by Miriam Toews Review

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 6, 2011)
One morning, Mel Toews put on his coat and hat, walked out of town, and took his own life. A loving husband and father, a faithful member of the Mennonite church, and an immensely popular schoolteacher, Mel was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggling with bipolar disorder, he could no longer face the darkness that clouded his world. In this moving meditation on illness, family, faith, and love, Mel’s daughter, critically acclaimed novelist and reporter Miriam Toews, recounts her father’s life as he would have told it, in his own voice, right up to the day of his final walk.
Swing Low is a bold, gracefully written, and compassionate recounting of one man's heartbreaking battle with depression.

My take: This had to be an incredibly difficult book to write. Miriam, the protagonist's daughter, tried to get into his head and recreate thoughts he might have been having. She began at the end. The prologue is Mel's end. He committed suicide at the age of 62. Having taught school for 40 years, sustained a marriage and a life, hiding mental illness through his work and church devotion, he ended his life before dementia took his mind.

The first few chapters confused me a bit. They were circular and difficult to follow. Apparently, Miriam's father not only suffered from being bi-polar but also had psychotic episodes. And, it would seem, a little bit of Fugue. Ergo, if he was getting lost in his thoughts, obviously the reader would, also.

About a third of the way through the book, I recognized a pattern. Mel was trying to link the events of the past few days to his life and had decided to start at the beginning. He recounted his childhood in his Mennonite community but also included his ancestral chain which hinted of depression, as well. Driven by guilt and shame which are linked to his upbringing and culture rather than religion, he becomes quiet when he can, robust when he needs to play a part.

At the same time, Mel is interacting with the reader and world. By world, I really mean his daughters and hospital staff. Mel is currently hospitalized while his daughters are working to get Mel help. But he has spent the past 62 years knowing how to answer questions and playing the part. His wife is exhausted and she needs help. Thus the interaction.

The book concludes with Mel's suicide, of course but the author offers a culmination of his life's work which is much greater than he believed and in direct contradiction of his last words to her; Nothing accomplished. As the author clearly points out in another chapter, regarding a different aspect, Mel laments that there are no windows in the house of Depression - only mirrors.

Through the internal dialogue and memories, the author paints a picture of a faithful Mennonite man, a father, a husband, a teacher, a sufferer of Bi-Polar Disorder, at times psychotic, other times clever and witty. Well connected and loved member of the community, he found it exhausting to live up to others' expectations (loved that nugget). He was a man of extremes and afraid of change.

Speaking of change, how many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Change?

Not my joke, I got it from the book.

Objectively written for such a personal subject. Nice work!

About Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews was born in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She has published five novels and a memoir of her father, and is the recipient of numerous literary awards in Canada, including the Governor General’s Literary Award (for A Complicated Kindness) and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for The Flying Troutmans). In 2010 she received the prestigious Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for her body of work. Irma Voth is Toews’s most recent novel. She lives in Toronto.

Miriam’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 6th: Amusing Reviews
Wednesday, September 7th: StephTheBookworm
Monday, September 12th: Life is Short. Read Fast.
Tuesday, September 13th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, September 14th: Bookstack
Monday, September 19th: In the Next Room
Tuesday, September 20th: Life in Review
Wednesday, September 21st: Rundpinne
Thursday, September 22nd: The Lost Entwife
Tuesday, September 27th: Amy Reads


Kim Lehnhoff said...

You'd think I'd get enough bipolar hijinx in everyday life, but something about this book is appealing to me.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this must have been so hard to write - it sounds like the author's father was a very complex man.

I'm glad you enjoyed this one once you caught on to the pattern. Thanks for being a part of the tour.