Thursday, September 22, 2011

Swing Low by Miriam Toews

Swing Low is the story of Miriam Toews' father, a man who suffered his whole life from bipolar disorder, keeping his struggles almost entirely to himself as he went against his psychiatrist's predictions that he wouldn't marry, start a family, or hold down a job. Instead, Mel Toews spent a forty years as a respected teacher, married his lifelong sweetheart, and had two happy and successful daughters. Then, after suffering a heart attack which limited the oxygen to his brain causing permanent damage, Mel was forced to retire from teaching, a job that had been as much an escape as a career. Finally, in 1998, he had himself released from the hospital and jumped in front of an incoming train.

With Swing Low Toews has written the story of the brilliant yet troubled man that her father was, how he would be outgoing and vibrant in the classroom only to remain in complete silence and despair at home. Bipolar disorder meant there were two sides to Mel, the manic and the depressive, and as Toews tries to come to terms with both her father's life and death, she attempts to bridge the gap in between the person her father was, and the person he tried so hard to be.

Like Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, Swing Low is more of a True Life Novel than a traditional memoir or biography. Written almost entirely in the first person from Mel's perspective- with the exception of a short introduction and epilogue- Toews truly lets the reader in on not only the experiences, but the emotions they provoked. I read this memoir after finishing Toews' latest novel, Irma Voth, and was shocked by the difference between the two. Although both take place in a Mennonite community, Swing Low is far more emotional and evocative, while Irma Voth tells a clearer and more distinct story. At first, and for many pages, I found myself very confused by the scattered narrative of Swing Low, the story begins with Mel in his hospital bed, slightly insane from dementia and trying to figure out what is going on. To do so, he goes back through his life, connecting the events that brought him to that moment together. As could be expected with a crazy narrator, sometimes he is quite difficult to follow and so it took a long time for me to get involved in the story. Even though Toews is taking on the voice of her father, it definitely felt genuine, and it's clear she didn't paint him in an idealistic light but instead Mel remains human and flawed. He was a man that tried very hard, but that didn't mean he was perfect.

Ultimately, I feel conflicted over this book. On one hand, it is a rich and inventive look into the mind of mental illness, especially in when it occurs in a not entirely understanding time or culture, which is both unique and believable. But at the same time, sometimes the book was too believable, in that I really felt like it was written by an insane person which made it difficult and not entirely enjoyable to read. Overall, Swing Low is a unique and insightful look into living with mental illness and although I found it confusing at times, it is a strong testament to Mel Toews and a reminder that no matter who we are, our parents remain a part of us.

Release Date: May 28th 2000
Pages: 240
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this one sounds like a powerful yet difficult read, especially when you say that it was almost too believable. It's interesting that you found such a marked difference between this book and Irma Voth - the ability of one writer to create two totally different writing styles is pretty amazing to me.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one for the tour.


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