REVIEW: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

106. Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
Publication: Harper (September 6, 2011), ARC Paperback, ~200pp? / ISBN 0062070185
Genre: Fiction

Read: August 31, 2011
Source: Publisher (thank you!)

Summary from Amazon:

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.


I’ve read only one other Miriam Toews book, A Complicated Kindness, but by a weird coincidence (or not) these two books have very similar themes (and stories). These themes are:
– Mennonites and their struggle with the outside world
– unsuitable parents
– tragedy/death/etc.
– young Mennonite girls running away to become citizens of the outside world
– something with nature vs the city
– Canada?

I suppose if you read these two MT books back to back, you might get tired of the same-ness. It’s been years since I read A Complicated Kindness, and even so I was a little tired of how everything seemed almost the same but set in a different country and with different characters. The problem comes from the fact that I think MT is drawing references from her own life to use in her books, and those references only go so far.

The author

Anyway, despite the same-ness, I actually think I like Irma Voth a bit better than A Complicated Kindness. Irma is a more subtly feisty character than Nomi is in ACK, although she’s no less “damaged.” Her sister, Aggie, is the best secondary character I think I’ve ever read in a book, so much so that I kind of wish she had been the protagonist instead of Irma (not that I didn’t like Irma).

I liked that the book was set in Mexico, as a) I had no idea that Mennonites lived there and b) I liked the idea of having been born in one country (Canada) but growing up in another (Mexico) and yet never really being a part of either (because they’re Mennonites). It makes for some twisty characters, which I sometimes enjoy reading about.

One of the most surprising things, though, was how nice every non-Mennonite person was. Several times during the course of the story I thought something would go horrible wrong– that nice taxi driver, for instance, would turn out to be a serial killer or something– and then it didn’t. Basically everyone that Irma meets outside of her Mennonite neighborhood is super kind to her, whereas basically every Mennonite is either a drunk, a murder, a battered housewife or worse.

Anyway, I don’t think I’d recommend reading this right after reading A Complicated Kindness, as the same-ness makes Irma Voth a bit less effective. Either read this one first, if you haven’t read a MT book before, or read another MT book between ACK and this one. I’ve actually got another MT book in my collection that I need to read (although I’ve just packed it in a box, so that’s not happening for a few months): A Boy of Good Breeding, which I’m pretty sure has nothing to do with Mennonites. I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

Basically: too much like A Complicated Kindness, still a good book for all that. If you liked A Complicated Kindness you’d probably like Irma Voth; if you didn’t like A Complicated Kindness then you probably won’t like this one.


I actually liked it better than A Complicated Kindness. Mostly because of Aggie.


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Other reviews

Reading on a Rainy Day: “In classic Miriam Toews’ style, the prose is quick and easy to read. Even though there is a lot of sadness and humor, the author doesn’t infuse those sentiments heavily into her writing. The feelings of the characters are never discussed – the book is a first-person account written from the perspective of Irma, and yet, Irma rarely ever says if she is feeling happy or sad due to something. She only talks of what she is doing, or what someone else is doing – people’s emotions aren’t the principal focus. Miriam lets the characters’ actions demonstrate the inner state of their minds.”

Figment Blog: “Luckily, you don’t really need to know about the culture of the Mennonites to appreciate this book. The Mennonites are, in the words of one of the main characters, Diego, “Props, essentially, for pure emotion.” Individual characters, however, have personalities all their own. They’re so well-developed that Irma’s younger sister Aggie is now one of my favorite characters of all time.”


Here’s an interesting video about Miriam Toews talking about Irma Voth (and her inspirations for the story):

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews”

  1. Huh. And here I was thinking how incredibly different Irma Voth was from the other Miriam Toews book I read (The Flying Troutmans), and how that displayed her impressive range as a writer.

    1. It’s just…strange, I guess, how similar ACK and IV are. Or not strange. Annoying? idk. I’m pretty sure her other books don’t have the Mennonite-escape to modern world-crappy parents storyline that ACK and IV do, right?

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