The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews
Suicidal single mothers, delinquent teenagers and unwashed children sound like the ingredients for a standard-issue misery memoir with an embossed, hand-scripted title and a toddler in tears on the cover. Fortunately, Miriam Toews has instead shaken them with wit, warmth and a firm pinch of absurdity, and produced a grittily sparkling cocktail of a novel.
The Flying Troutmans takes a bleak premise, adds pitch-perfect, fully human characters and makes it, if not laugh-out-loud funny, at least difficult to read without a couple of sniggers per chapter.
Hattie Troutman has fled to Paris to escape the emotional masochism of proximity to her disturbed and chronically depressed sister, Min. But after three years of European self-indulgence, she boomerangs back to Canada when summoned by her 11-year-old niece, Thebes (Theodora). Once home, she discovers her sister is bedridden and refusing to eat; 15-year-old Logan is on the verge of being expelled, and his sister Thebes has developed a profound aversion to soap and water.
After installing Min in hospital, Hattie decides that the children’s father is the one person who can reasonably be expected to assist. This despite the fact that he was last heard of ten years previously, somewhere unspecified in the United States. But somehow Hattie’s decision to pack the children into a van and traverse North America looking for a man with whom they’ve had no contact in a decade seems, if not exactly rational, at least emotionally plausible.
Parentless herself, thrown from a life in which her greatest problem was her French boyfriend’s lack of commitment to total responsibility for two vulnerable children, Hattie is desperate both for an adult with whom to share the enormity of the situation, and to ensure that someone is forced to fight their corner besides her 28-year-old self.
Stuck in a van (regularly driven by the unlicensed Logan), the three characters ricochet off each other in a volley of precocious pre-teen wisecracks, adolescent self-absorption and the terror of a twenty-something realising she is supposed to be the grown-up.
Thebes firecrackers off the page as a brilliantly vital confection of tangled purple hair, fading transfer tattoos, filthy clothes, invented personas and limitless questions, while Logan, with his moody graffiti, unacknowledged need for human contact and ‘security blanket’ basketball, is a poignantly accurate frightened teenager.
While Toews never dismisses the gravity of Min’s illness and the impact on the family, she powerfully demonstrates the essential role of humour in rendering the unbearable bearable. Her dialogue is fast-paced, vivid, perceptive and frequently hilarious, while the insights into Hattie’s experience of growing up with the damaged Min add depth and pathos but never mawkishness.
Broadening her remit from the confines of her Mennonite childhood which informed her previous novel, A Complicated Kindness, Toews proves herself to be a surefooted interpreter of complex relationships. In this colourful, big-hearted novel she creates battered, loving, whole and original characters who are never less than fascinating company.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 7, 2009Tags: Fiction, Travel