Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Flying Troutmans

        A few weeks ago I read Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness, and fell in love with the book. Toews just has a knack for writing kid characters that are hard to not relate to. She has them down to the melodramatic poetry they scribble into notebooks and it's simply incredible just how much growing up she can stuff into them without losing that sense of childhood. This week I decided I wanted to read another one of her books. I chose The Flying Troutmans, and once again was held captive by the story, and the characters that filled it. Toews’s writing is a unique collision of sadness and humour, and The Flying Troutmans is a dark story, but it's also a never-ending series of hilarious adventures.

        We are first introduced to Hattie Troutman. She finds herself returning to Winnipeg from Paris to assume guardianship of her niece and nephew, Thebes and Logan, following the mental collapse of her sister, Min. Having been freshly jilted by her French, adjective hating lover, Hattie is in a tenuous emotional state herself, but ripe for change and used to picking up the pieces when Min falls off the rails.

        Shortly after Hattie’s arrival, a suicidal Min is hospitalized. Desperately in need of a game plan, Hattie impulsively takes the kids on the road to find their father, Cherkis, who was banished from his home years ago by a raving Min and who now lives somewhere in the western U.S. Thus the quirky trio—purple-haired, wise-beyond-her-years Thebes, recently expelled brother Logan, and overwhelmed Hattie-embark on their journey.What follows is a Little Miss Sunshine–like quest in which the characters learn about themselves and each other as they weather car repairs, sleazy motel rooms and encounters with bizarre people. Toews's gift for writing precocious children and the story's antic momentum redeem the familiar set-up, and if the ending feels a bit rushed, it's largely because it's tough to let Toews's characters go.

        Travel is a natural portal to memory, and here it is used effectively as a segue into Min and Hattie’s complex past. What emerges is a portrait of a sibling relationship dictated by equal parts love, dependency, and disease. In other words, it’s a deeply problematic relationship, but one not easily dismissed.

        Familiar elements from Toews’ previous novels – the road trip, missing parents, a story told in hindsight, teenagers suddenly thrust to the helm – recombine effortlessly here. The journey at the novel’s centre gives the narrative a momentum wholly absent in A Complicated Kindness, which dealt with the suffocating, static atmosphere of a Mennonite community. The considerable charm of Miriam Toews’ fiction comes, in part, from her ability to create characters in situations of long-term duress with a brilliantly emulsified mix of repression and humour, punctuated by bursts of real emotion. In The Flying Troutmans, Toews’ unsunny topic is mental illness – something on the periphery of, but never so solidly confronted in, her previous work. And Toews is now an old hand at writing the kind of precocious teenage dialogue, with its flatly ironic tone, that made the movie Juno seem like a revelation to so many last year.

        This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand. Toews writes in a high-energy, original voice filled with love, fear, humour and originality. Miriam Toews is an extraordinarily gifted writer, one who writes with unsentimental compassion for her people and an honest understanding of their past, the tectonic shifts of their present and variables of their future. I would definitely recommend this book, and look forward to reading more of Toews work. 

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