swing low: a life – miriam toews

At the age of seventeen, he was diagnosed as suffering from the mental illness known then as manic depression and today as bipolar disorder. His method of self-defence, along with the large amounts of medication he was prescribed, was silence.


image source (the author is the youngest, blonde girl)

I’ve reviewed two of Miriam Toews’ novels, All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness; Swing Low: A Life is a biography of her father, written from his point of view. He was a Mennonite, a manic depressive, and ultimately committed suicide, a fact which lead Toews to write about mental illness in her fiction.

When I was two I choked on a peanut and my mother said that incident might have shifted the fault lines in my brain and made me the anxious man that I am today.

The narrative moves between past and present, the present setting being a private room in a hospital run by his brother. Mel battles cognitive dissonance and the damage he has done to his family. As readers, we already know that the conclusion is suicide, so we’re following the trail of history and waiting for the future, to find out how and why.

We read to know we’re not alone. C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man in my opinion. He believed in God, he was a good writer, and a kind person by all accounts. One question I would have liked to ask him, however, is this: how does a man feel less alone when he can no longer read?

Some faith in words, but not all. Where to turn when words stop making sense?

Mel was diagnosed at age 17, after breakthrough symptoms that earned him his first hospital stay.

I’m as crazy as an egg, I thought. Who will keep me warm before I break?

The author appears to get under her father’s skin effortlessly, with a level and style of overthinking that typifies bipolar perfectly. She gets the self loathing right too, with Mel’s daughters reassuring him that he is a good father, and his instantaneous and total disbelief of the statement, for example. The workings of a manic depressive mind are expressed firmly, while the rest of the cast show themselves gradually, tentatively. Of course the book is shot through with tragedy snd pain, but Mel’s wry and dry humour comes through clearly too.

Sorrow, silence.

He constantly weighs and measures himself, he finds himself wanting every time. The search for mental health is conducted more for his family than himself and he tries desperately to think and write his way out of his personal hell. And meanwhile, his wife is elsewhere, trying to recover from hers. The hells that mental illness make are so deadly separate, aren’t they?

I am personally responsible for Elvira’s demise, I intone rather formally. I drove her to despair. No, says the nurse, you did not. You are ill, that’s not your fault. How naive and kind of him, I think as he pats me on the shoulder.

He was warned against the two things he credited with his survival.

My psychiatrist had, when I informed him that I was planning to get married, expressed no small amount of shock and dismay. He told me that those who suffer from manic depression have a lot of difficulty making marriages or any long-term relationship work, and when I told him that I was also planning on becoming a schoolteacher, he almost hit the roof. The responsibility, Mel, the consistency, the patience, the endurance … all these things are extremely difficult to maintain with an illness like yours … won’t you reconsider?

Having learned how to be silent in his childhood, he spent his adulthood trying to supress his illness more and more, for the sake of his family and an orderly life. Of course, they all sustain significant wear and tear as a result.


I had come to believe that I wasn’t going to survive the trip anyway and that brings a certain sense of calm to a man, in a strange way.

Toews could have sucked the above thought directly out of my head. How did she manage to get it all so right, without being bipolar herself? Perhaps she takes after him a lot in terms of characteristics? Of all the words I’ve read and people I have talked to about surviving a suicide, this book was the most surprising (by far) in terms of empathy and understanding. How on earth did she process grief that way? I can’t even imagine reaching that point myself.

It did cause my eyes to leak a bit, at the end (don’t tell anyone).


Number of things that are fine: zero.

I have no criticisms about this book and I recommend it to you as heartily as I possibly can. Whether you’re bipolar, or you want to understand someone who is, Swing Low has a lot to say and to teach. I recommend both of the novels I mentioned earlier too. Despite the recurring themes, the perspectives are so different that I felt I learned more from each one, and enjoyed getting other perspectives on things.

Shoo! Go and buy a book or three.


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