In recent years, few concepts have resonated as much as toxic masculinity. From how it plays in personal relationships to how people engage with culture, it’s gone from the specialized world of academics to everyday use. In her new book Women Talking author Miriam Toews examines this concept through a novel device: the minutes of a meeting of Mennonite women.

Perhaps some back story is required. Between 2005 and 2009, there was a string of sexual assaults in a remote Bolivian Mennonite community. Initially blamed on everything from imagination to demons, eventually several men were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Toews novel is inspired by these events, but is not a retelling of them. Rather, it covers two lengthy meetings where the women of the colony discuss their fate.

In the middle of Women Talking is an unconventional man: August Epps. Son of two excommunicated members, Epps returned to the colony after a prison sentence and became the community’s teacher. Specifically, the boy’s teacher, as women are not allowed to know how to read or write at the colony – even the Bible must be read to them. As an outsider, and a man who doesn’t farm or work the land for a living, Epps occupies a middle ground: not seen as a man by the other men, and trusted by the women who don’t see him as a threat. He sits in a barn with them, taking dictation as the women discuss the attacks and their responses.

As they see it, there are three options, neatly summed in simple pictures: stay and fight, leave the colony, or to simply do nothing. For two days, while the men are away in the city, trying to raise enough money to pay bail for the alleged rapists, the women discuss their options, their lives and how something this tragic could happen.

The unspoken phrase – one these women wouldn’t be aware of, as would Epps – is toxic masculinity. The colony’s rules set up strict divisions between the sexes, with one side domineering over the other. Women aren’t allowed to read, write or lead lives of their own, while men aren’t just allowed to order them around, but expected to. With a mindset like this, it’s sadly unsurprising when then women open their debate with a discussion on if they’re animals.

The characters Toews has populating her novel range from brusque and outspoken to meek and shy, but all are fully formed and leap off the page. When they talk, their debates come to life: sometimes clashing, other times circling around ideas they can’t quite formulate. For example, here’s an argument over the mindset of the men of the colony:

 

“Mariche opens her mouth, but Salome quickly interjects. Time will heal our heavy hearts, she states. Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is the men who prevent us from achieving these goals.

But not all men, says Mejal.

Ona clarifies: Perhaps not all men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.” (pg 66)

 

Their words – for example, “Not all men” – resonate so clearly because they’re the language that’s happening when we have these discussions about toxic masculinity: when a blogger rips a movie for it’s all female cast, a celebrity is accused of assault or a politician suggests where a woman’s place is. In a novel that’s set roughly a decade ago, Toews has created a remarkable commentary on contemporary society, and the ways in which people react and are damaged by it.

This isn’t to suggest her novel is a feminist polemic. It’s not. Like several of her other books, it’s a novel with a big heart and compelling characters. There’s romantic tension between two people who can never be together, and it’s suspenseful when one of the men returns unexpectedly. For a novel largely told in dialogue, it’s remarkably easy to read: it flows naturally, sliding between words and action without batting an eye.

When reading Women Talking, I found myself going for long stretches without realizing it – it’s engrossing, and an interesting read. Between that, and what it has to say about life in 2019, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Recommended.