Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Trio of Girls and Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans

I had hoped to write about Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans, but one of my daughters (who counts Toews' A Complicated Kindness among her favourites) has borrowed it. Without pages to turn, passages to look up, I am limited to impressions, but you already know I do more quick and dirty than protracted review anyway.

By the way, for those readers who have asked for recommendations re Canadian literature, I am proud to say that Toews is Canadian and although this novel begins in Paris and travels through the US, it still captures some of the flavour of small Prairie-town/city teen life that is such a strong element in Kindness. Both well worth reading!

So quickly, impressions: The coincidence, on the first page, of "Min" and "Thebes" (nicknames, respectively, of the narrator's mentally ill sister and that sister's daughter) somehow set me up to think of the labyrinth, although I know that "Theseus" is the proper "Th" name for that association. Still, the idea of journeying into a dangerous centre of potential self-discovery and of journeying back out again to rejoin life is an idea that the novel's road-trip plot supports.

Painful, gentle, funny, dark, wry, quirky family dysfunction is familiar territory for Toews; overall, this novel is perhaps more redemptive, even upbeat, than Kindness, I think because the adult narrator engages more usefully with the children than the father was able to in Kindness. And the kids themselves are, oddly, less damaged, despite the cost their mother's condition has exacted. They are great kids, funny, real, recognizable despite Thebes' oscillation between precocity and naiveté.

And that would lead me to the last response I had to this novel which is to connect Thebes to the young girls in Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News. In all three cases, the girls are barely or early adolescent, very bright, but alienated or isolated socially from their peers and/or from their families. They manifest an independence and competence side-by-side with a vulnerability that they have learned to shrug off and are very endearing because of that combination. I contrast this figure -- the bright 12-16-year old girl -- with the young women who puzzled me in so many literary novels a decade or so ago. At that time, with my daughters in their late teens and early twenties, I found the use of this figure suspect; I had difficulty with the "willing suspension of disbelief" required to attribute wisdom, patience, selflessness or whatever to 19-year old protagonists who often seemed to have stepped off the pages of a Harlequin novel.

So I wonder if this trio I've spotted marks a larger pattern and if I were searching for an interesting thesis, I think I'd dig into this question for a while. For example, the three young girls, as presented, have almost no interest at all in their sexuality -- they manifest no preoccupation with boys, either singular or plural. The young women, on the other hand, generally worked through love and/or sexuality to do some kind of thematic work for their authors. As I say, if I were less a dilettante, I think this might be worth some protracted exploration of what might be "an emerging cultural phenomenon." Dilettante, however, I seem doomed to me, so I will merely throw the question out for my readers to ponder. I will commit, though, to tracking down another recent mystery which apparently features a young girl who might make a quartet of my trio -- Flavia, the heroine of Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The reviews look very appealing, so this will eventually work its way up my book order list.

What do you think? Any heroines or narrators or characters you can think of from your recent reading that fit my description? And if you've read The Flying Troutmans and want to comment on any aspect of it, I'd love to hear what you think.


  1. Now I have to go and find myself a copy and read it immediately!

    I finally finished Sea of Poppies (not much reading time in my life right now, except for the few minutes before I sleep). Among its many joys was the hilarious mangling of language when Paulette inserted French into English; it also struck a chord for me because I recognised many of the words from growing up in post (but only just) colonial Singapore.

    As for your thesis, I look forward to giving that some more thought myself. I find your point about the lack of sexuality (or sexualisation?) of these characters particularly interesting.

    Again, so many books, so many thoughts, so little time!

  2. Tiffany: Not sure how I missed this comment -- sorry for taking so long to respond!
    Yes! Sea of Poppies was very much about language and Paulette's movement between French and English was great fun. Your knowledge of the influence of the colonies on the English language must have enhanced your enjoyment.
    And again, yes! tooooo many books, too little time!

  3. As you characterize them, these women suddenly remind me of the prototypical fairy tale heroine, who, somehow, despite being abandoned, abused, and unjustly dealt with, manages to turn isolation into independence and savvy. Jung and Freud have a lot to say about this kind of character as I recall.... Given that kids in the states nowadays seem utterly unable to get an unscheduled second to themselves, I wonder whether this figure isn't even more necessarily in younger lit. Interesting!

  4. Hmmmm, PM, I have a friend/colleague who does KidLit, with big interest in girls, fairy/folk tales -- I'll have to run that by her. Wish I had some parallel lifetimes to do some of the follow-up reading. . .