Review: All My Puny Sorrows

I just finished the most beautiful novel.

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Simply put, All My Puny Sorrows is a novel about life. I know that’s extremely vague, but it’s the only term I can think of that properly sums up the main purpose of Toews’s story. The plot is simple: Elf wants to die and Yoli, her sister, wants her to live. But this is not a book about “saving” someone, and showing them how beautiful life can be. It’s a story of grieving life, and trying to understand what exactly went wrong.

Sometimes, questions have no answers. Sometimes, life doesn’t make sense.

The prose is simple, but there are certain sentences that are so beautifully poetic that I don’t know how a human mind could compose them. This is definitely a novel for those who read, as there is a plethora of references to authors and poets (some of which were obscure to me). The novel is also filled with tiny Canadian references, which is lovely, but you certainly don’t have to be Canadian to enjoy it. One of my favourite aspects of this novel is that the author chose to not use direct speech. This choice makes it seem as though we are reading Yoli’s diary, or as if she is orally recalling this story to us. It’s such a simple decision, but it adds so much intimacy and depth to the novel.

Furthermore, this novel is a story about memory. Yoli seems trapped in the past, while Elf is caught in the future. Yoli wants nothing more than to remember and reminisce, and is constantly asking Elf if she “remembers” stories from their youth. Right to the end, Yoli is explaining stories of her childhood to the reader. Elf, meanwhile, can think of nothing but the future, and the future consists of only one thing: death. Perhaps this is why there is no direct speech: Yoli, who wants to remember everything, cannot exactly remember what was said.

All My Puny Sorrows is a beautiful novel that deals with life, death, grief, and memory, but it is also a novel about love, and sisterhood, and friendship. Mostly, I find this is a novel about not understanding life or those we love most. But not understanding does not mean that we cannot feel, we cannot enjoy, we cannot hurt, and we cannot love.

Because ultimately, love is all there is.

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