Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

by Meredith Hilton

Ok, so raise your hand if you’ve heard of the Mennonites. Yes? No? It’s ok! Don’t be ashamed! I’d never heard of them either before I read Irma Voth by Miriam Toews. Irma Voth is about a Mennonite girl named, of course, Irma Voth, living in Mexico with her family, husband, and other insignificant things. Like, oh, a stash of drugs in the barn.

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. In a totally unrelated development, we both happen to be headstrong, independent, and stubborn as mules.

Nineteen year old Irma’s relatives are all Mennonites living in Mexico. Well, all except for Irma’s new husband, a Mexican. Because of this forbidden marriage, he and Irma are exiled to a tiny house on the edge of the father’s property where, in return for not being killed or separated, they get to run an entire farm without pay. As if things weren’t already hard enough for our protagonist, the story opens right after her husband has disappeared without warning. Again. And after her father has come to sling Bible passages in her face. Again. And a few chapters in, a film director shows up wanting to hire her as a translator. Agai- wait, what? This is where I sat up in my chair (or, more likely, rolled over on the lawn –  we’re getting really nice weather here), and started to pay attention. This is the point in the plot where Irma’s life gets totally turned on its head.

Beyond basic plot, Irma Voth is very hard to describe, so please bear with me while I try. If other novels are ‘colorful,’ Irma Voth’s palate is full of grays that blend together into a black and white collage sort of similar to a Grecian marble statue or maybe one of those modernist hand-made paper things. It’s incredibly three-dimensional, but in sort of the same way a spun-sugar centerpiece is three-dimensional. It’s got as many threads as the Gen/Ran forum, but they all end up looking like a really beautiful Celtic knot. All in all, Toews’ captivating plot, the clash between control and art, makes Irma Voth rewarding on many, many levels.

I’ve tried, I really have, to give you an idea of Irma Voth in this review, and I guess it’s a testament to the novel that I can’t quite pin it down. I could go down the cheesy it’s-worth-so-much-more-than-the-two-dollars-I-bought-it-for-at-a-random-bookstore-and-has-possibly-changed-my-life path, and I desperately want to, but no! I must retain my composure! Read, therefore, the following sentence in the most dignified voice possible: I counsel you, oh figmenter, for the good of good literature and the publishing industry, to read Irma Voth, which you should purchase, if you should so desire, at your local bookstore.


Meredith Hilton hails from Washington, DC during the school year (in the summer, her location is pretty much up to chance). On any given day you can find her online, being artsy, in the library, or surreptitiously writing poetry during math class.

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