Trigger warning for rape.
A foreword at the beginning of Miriam Toews devastating and infuriating novel, Women Talking, explains that the plot is based on a true story. Between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of women in a Bolivian Mennonite community were drugged, abused, and raped. Eight men were eventually caught, tried, and sentenced for the crimes. Women Talking takes place over two days while some of the women hold a meeting to decide what they should do before their attackers return to the community while they are out on bail.
The novel is narrated by August Epps, who takes minutes for the meeting because all of the women and girls at the Molotschna community are illiterate. These women and girls have been through horrors and are still being victimized by the leaders (all men) of their colony. Over the course of the meeting, we learn that the Bolivian government only got involved because the bishop, Peters, was forced to call them in…to protect the accused from attacks by their victims. The men were only charged and jailed because it was safer for them. The women and girls have received no medical care except for some stolen animal antibiotics. All offers of counseling have been rejected by the bishop. Now, the women have been told that, in order to remain members of the colony, they must forgive their attackers and allow these men back into their community. If they cannot forgive, they will be excommunicated and exiles.
The meeting is called to decide what the women will do. Will they leave because they cannot forgive? Or will they stay and say they have forgiven their attackers? These questions are complicated by a host of issues the women have with their community and religion. At one point, they wonder if they are considered humans or animals by the men. At another point, they wonder about the state of their souls because so many of them cannot forgive and forget the way the Bishop and the other men (not the attackers) want them to. August adds some asides for context and his own views when the women ask what he thinks. These asides and tangents served to remind me that these women have been silenced in so many ways. They cannot even record their thoughts without a man to document them. No matter how sympathetic August may be, he still interprets, translates, and corrects what the women say; we don’t hear them directly.
Women Talking is a microcosm of so many things: misogyny, power and autonomy, language, faith, post-traumatic stress disorder, reconciliation and forgiveness, inequality, injustice, lack of empathy, repeated victimization, sexuality, recovery. This book may be impossible for some readers because of its contents and because it is based on real events. For readers who do take it on, it is a profound shout from women who are not truly heard by the men in their community, who are not believed by those men, and who may never see any kind of justice. My heart is still bleeding from what I read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.