Thoughts on “Swing Low” by Miriam Toews

by Erin on October 4, 2011

I won an ARC of Swing Low by Miriam Toews during the April 2011 Readathon. It is a memoir of the author’s father, written by her but from her father’s perspective.

About the Book:

Swing Low by Miriam ToewsMel Toews is in the hospital. Why, he cannot quite remember. There are other select bits of memory that seem to have slipped away as well. His daughters visit, and his friends, and of course the nurses, who are always telling him what to do (or not do). As a way to keep himself busy as well as encourage his memory to reveal its secrets, Mel begins to write, tracing his life back to childhood and moving forward from there. As the days follow one another in the hospital, Mel tells his story, interrupting here and there to record the doings of visitors, nurses, and the tiny baby across the hall.

My Thoughts:

Going into Swing Low, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve read memoirs, but never about someone other than the author. That sort of book, I’d always assumed, was called a biography. But Swing Low is certainly not the latter. Toews has written her father’s story through his own eyes, as she pieced together and imagined it herself.

The resulting portrait is of a deeply complex man: a Mennonite husband, father, teacher and friend who adored his job and family but struggled daily with bipolar disorder. As a writer, he is warm and witty, though it is difficult to ignore the streak of melancholy that lies beneath his narrative. The story is written as though Mel is thinking in real time, as he lies in his hospital bed. He comments on the nurses who come in, visitors who stop by, and the things that happen near his hospital room, his own written internal monologue reflecting his mental and emotional state. In between these brief episodes, he reflects on his life, telling his story from its beginning to the present moment in the hopes that he may sneak up on the blank parts and reclaim them.

The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking how courageous Miriam Toews must be to have taken on so delicate and personal a project. I was impressed, too, marveling at the way she portrayed her subject with the eye of a biographer or memoirist and the heart of a daughter. Such a balancing act cannot be easy, yet Toews pulls it off with grace and eloquence. Swing Low is beautiful, heartbreaking, impressive, and enthralling all at once, all the while serving as a kind of memorial to a troubled but beloved man.

Because of its unique perspective, I think Swing Low would appeal to memoir lovers but also to readers of fiction. Toews’s skill as a writer shines plainly through as she blends the pieces of her father’s life into a cohesive story. I am eager to read more by this talented author.

Those are my thoughts. Check out Swing Low by Miriam Toews on Goodreads or LibraryThing, or read other bloggers’ reviews:

If I’ve missed yours, please let me know!

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22 comments
Aths
Aths

I can't wait for my copy to arrive! I love Miriam Toews' books and this is one I am curious about, because it's presented in a very unique style. I'm glad you liked it.

Ryan
Ryan

I worked for the publisher of Swing Low when it came out but never once got around to reading it. I did read A Complicated Kindness, though. Very good. Very disturbing. Miriam Toews is one of Canada's finer writers.

softdrink
softdrink

Hmmm, I like Toews, but I'm not sure about her and non-fiction. And I read Half Broke Horses, which is a similar concept (Jeanette Walls telling the fictionalized history of her grandma), and it didn't quite work for me.

Nymeth
Nymeth

I tend to be picky about memoirs, but this one definitely sounds unique. Plus I've heard great things about Toews and have been meaning to try her for ages.

Carl Sawatzky
Carl Sawatzky

More a fan of fiction than memoirs, admiration of Toews other books & an interest in mental illness motivated me to read this. I couldn't agree more with your review & the courage it must have taken her to write it. I especially enjoyed how she wrote about episodes involving herself (ie a day at Disney, the lawn mowing incident) from her father's perspective. Brilliant.

Jennifer, bookspersonally
Jennifer, bookspersonally

had not heard of this one yet, love how you have described the writing and the courage and "heart" in the story - sounds very compelling.

Nadine Nys
Nadine Nys

I am not really into memoirs, but your review makes me want to read it. Is it facts mostly or fiction? However, it seems a nice blend between the two.

Thanks for your review, Erin.

Kailana
Kailana

I read this a couple years ago, but even though I rather enjoyed it I hardly remember it any more... I have enjoyed what I have read by Toews in the past, though.

Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting
Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting

This sounds superb. Mental illness and psychological conditions always intrigue me, with books by Stefan Merrill Block and Oliver Sacks in particular coming to mind.

Thanks for the review, Erin!

Laurel-Rain Snow
Laurel-Rain Snow

I do love memoirs...and I enjoy (maybe not the right word!) books about mental illness.

This one is on my radar.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

zibilee
zibilee

This does sound like a rather unique memoir, and since memoirs are one of my favorite genres, I would probably so well to pick this one up at some point. I am excited that you were so enthralled with it, as it can sometimes be hard to get a great recommendation for this type of book. Tastes in memoirs can be very personal, but since I trust your judgement, this is going on the list. Thanks!

Erin
Erin

Yes, the style on this one is definitely unique. I'm really interested to read some of Toews' fiction, since I enjoyed Swing Low so much!

Erin
Erin

Oh, nice! I don't know a lot of Canadian authors, but I was fairly impressed with Toews. I would definitely try some of her fiction based on Swing Low.

Erin
Erin

Hm, I wouldn't compare this with Half Broke Horses. I didn't care much for that one, either, because I wanted to know what was true and what wasn't. Swing Low reads well as fiction, and because it's written in the first person by someone who is not the author, I guess I never took it as fact. There's a preface in which Toews explains why she wrote the book and what her approach was, which helped too, I think. I haven't read her fiction, so I can't compare, but Swing Low definitely felt different from your typical memoir for me.

Erin
Erin

I think it helps to maybe not think of this one as a traditional memoir. It would read well as fiction, except you know from the preface that the book is the author's attempt to understand her father and to cope with her grief over his death. I found it lovely -- it was my introduction to Toews as well, and now I want to read more.

Erin
Erin

I thought this one read well as fiction. Toews clearly wasn't trying to stick just to fact, instead imagining the end of her father's life as best she can. What a project for her to have undertaken. I agree -- those moments when she herself showed up in the story were especially interesting. Glad you appreciated this one as well.

Erin
Erin

It really was. It's a unique format, not one I've encountered before.

Erin
Erin

It's definitely a blend, so if you tend toward fiction, I think you might like it. It would read well as a novel, too.

Erin
Erin

This was my first, but I'd like to read others by her. I definitely liked her style as a writer. I'm happy you liked the others you've read.

Erin
Erin

My husband really likes Sacks' work! I've meant to try something by him but haven't yet. It sounds like Swing Low might be one you'd enjoy, though of course, not only is it memoir, but also not written by the person it's about, which necessarily blurs the line between fact and fiction more than usual.

Erin
Erin

We need a different word for "enjoy" in some situations, don't we? I've come upon that issue before, too!

Erin
Erin

I think what struck me with this one was how Toews took on her father's voice. So, it's a memoir, but also not. I thought she did a fantastic job on all fronts, even if this really isn't a traditional memoir. I hope it turns out to be one you enjoy!