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The terrific new novel Women Talking asks what justice looks like in the post-#MeToo age

A Bolivian Mennonite community was terrorized by a string of rapes. This new novel asks what comes next.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews Bloomsbury
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

From 2005 to 2009, the Mennonite colony Manitoba in Bolivia was haunted by a demon, and the demon was raping the colony’s women. Women would wake up in their beds fuzzy-headed and in pain, with rope marks on their arms and grass in their hair, blood and semen in the sheets, and no memory of the night before.

Colony elders dismissed the incidents as women trying to cover up affairs, as hysteria, as lying. It happened to women as old as 65 and girls as young as 3.

Eventually, two men were caught trying to break into a neighbor’s house in the night, and they revealed the truth. They were part of a group of men, a gang, behind the string of attacks. At night, they would spray families with an anesthetic used to sedate farm animals, knocking them unconscious. Then they would rape the women.

The attacks are known as “the ghost rapes.” In 2011, eight men would be brought to trial and found guilty. Officially, there are 130 victims. Most likely, there are more.

Women Talking, the new novel by secular Mennonite Miriam Toews, is not about the ghost rapes of Manitoba. It’s about what comes after.

Women Talking asks what we do after the unspeakable has happened

What happened to the women of Manitoba is singularly horrifying, but a book written about sexual violence that comes out in America in 2019 has to work hard to avoid being thought of as a “#MeToo novel,” as a commentary on the waves of rape and sexual assault and sexual harassment that were reported on in the fall of 2017.

Toews does not veer away from that classification. Instead, she uses the ghost rapes of Manitoba as a kind of allegory for the position in which women find themselves in the wake of #MeToo: Something awful has happened. The perpetrators have been brought to light. So now what?

How do the women protect themselves? How do we care for the victims? And what do we do to the perpetrators?

In Women Talking, the women of Manitoba will have to answer those questions for themselves, because the men will not help them. As the novel begins, the men of Manitoba have left the colony to go to the nearby town, where they will sell livestock to raise the money they need to bail the rapists out of jail. Once the rapists have returned home, the women will be required to forgive them. Forgiveness — like pacifism — is a staple of Mennonite faith, and any woman who declines to forgive her rapist will be endangering her place in heaven.

While the men are gone, women from two families have gathered together to weigh their options. They have found that they cannot forgive their rapists. As they understand it, that leaves them with three choices. They can do nothing. They can stay and fight. Or they can leave the colony.

Many of the women of the colony have chosen to do nothing. But for the two families gathered together — all named after members of Toews’s family — “do nothing” is not a real option. All that’s left is to decide whether to fight for change within the colony or to leave the colony and build a new life for themselves outside of it. And so they sit and they talk, in endless circling loops, around their options.

Some women invoke the enduring power of love. Others declare the power of love “meaningless,” especially “in this fucking context.” Some say they should fight their rapists physically, and kill them if necessary. Others object that killing their enemies is the gravest sin it is possible to commit.

The leavers argue that staying in the colonies to fight would mean necessarily being forced “to choose between forgiveness and eternal life.” But if they leave, others ask, would that mean leaving behind their sons? Can they bring their sons with them if they are still children? If they’re bringing male children with them, what is the cutoff age? At what age do they declare a boy to be past redemption? And does the fault in fact lie with the men themselves, or with “a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds”?

These are heady, difficult questions, but Toews handles them with fingertip delicacy. She is best known as a comic novelist, and Women Talking, as bleak as its premise might be, is also extremely funny. The women are talking about their traumas, sure, but they are also talking about their petty grievances, the boring stories that everyone already knows. One old woman won’t stop telling instructive stories about her horses, and everyone else groans whenever she starts one. Two of the women cordially despise each other and keep derailing the conversation to snipe at each other’s ideas.

Toews also mines comedy from the novel’s narrator, August Epp. He’s the only man who gets to sit in on the women’s meeting, a schoolteacher who is considered barely a man by the rest of the colony because he doesn’t farm. August apologetically notes that it’s not really his place to speak — he is “irrelevant for all purposes,” he informs us in the first line — but he is the only one who can take the minutes of the women’s meeting, because the women of Manitoba are not taught to write. As he transcribes their words, he clumsily interjects facts that he believes to be interesting, but when he says them out loud (“Humans shed approximately forty pounds of skin in their lifetime,” he tells the meeting at one point), the women crisply inform him that they don’t need his opinions or his facts.

August has his own traumas. He and his family were excommunicated from Manitoba when he was 12, after his father was caught teaching some of the women to write, but his parents have since died, and after a brief and mysterious spell in prison, August has fled back to the colony. Nevertheless, his primary role in this book is to lighten the trauma of everyone else, to be a source of tenderness. He describes the women whose speech he is recording with gentle awe: the way the teenagers wear their socks rolled fashionably around their ankles, the way one woman ends her sentences by gasping “as though she is attempting to take back her words,” the way another extinguishes her contraband cigarettes “stylishly, by pinching it with her finger and thumb.”

Women Talking is as tender and funny and hopeful as it is possible for a book about the aftermath of a string of serial rapes to be. But in large part, that’s because it is almost entirely fiction — or, as Toews calls it in her author’s note, “an act of female imagination.”

In reality, the women of Manitoba neither fled their colony nor tried to fight for change from within. They did nothing. And a report in 2013 suggested that while the convicted men remain in prison, the ghost rapes of Manitoba have continued.