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:
Mel 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.
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.
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