Miriam Toews’ ‘All My Puny Sorrows’: What Genre is it?


While Toews is by no means the new kid on the block, All My Puny Sorrows (or AMPS), her seventh published work, is the first of her stories that has come to my attention. It has, however turned me very quickly into a die-hard fan of Toews. AMPS is honestly one of the most beautiful pieces of work that I have read in recent years, blending together humour and tragedy to create a brutally honest depiction of life, death, and grief.

“She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”

AMPS is a story about two sisters. Yoli, in her own eyes, is a failure. Her sister Elf, however, is a success. Beautiful. Genius. World-famous pianist. Loving partner. She seemingly has everything. And yet, all she wants is to die. And all Yoli wants is for her to live. The novel is a fictionalised version of Toews’ own sister’s suicide, which tragically mirrored that of their father’s. However, Toews never asks for sympathy from her readers, rather she invites the reader to experience her story, and it feels intrinsically true. 

The form is certainly an aspect of what makes AMPS feel real – although it comes under ‘Fiction’ if you search for it in Waterstones – she uses unfiltered, often funny, and most importantly, relatable, stream of consciousness techniques to give an authentic and honest insight into speaker Yoli’s mind: “I took the stairs down, two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate,” (AMPS, 2015, p.42).

AMPS also flits between Yoli and Elf’s pasts and presents, throwing the reader back in time, just as Yoli’s memories do. Yoli and Elf grew up in a Mennonite community, just as Toews and her sister did, and Elf (spoiler alert) commits suicide just as Toews’ sister did – and in the same way as her father. Which brings me to ask: Is AMPS really ‘fiction’? It certainly feels similar to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, in theme and style. Where is the line between what happens to Yoli and what happened to Toews? Should it be ‘fiction’? Or should Wild really be ‘nonfiction’, stacked between celebrity memoirs?

Perhaps it is time that literary non-fiction gets some independence as a genre. Few people would wander into Waterstones’ ‘non-fiction’ section looking for something like Wild. With the rise of literary non-fiction (such as the late Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air sitting determinedly in the best-seller lists), is it not dangerous to authors to force them to fit their work into ‘fiction’ or ‘non-fiction’, lumping literary non-fiction in with celebrity biographies and work like Toews’ in with traditional fiction?

I say that it’s time to mix up the genres, for the sake of promoting excellent material, and to protect our established and emerging literary non-fiction authors.