‘This is our manifesto’

After a community’s crisis of humanity, a reimagining

At the halfway point of Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking, the narrator, August Epp, describes a faded photograph clipped from a London newspaper and pinned to the wall in a nearby co-op. The caption reads, Mennonites like to spend some time chatting under the stars before going to sleep, and the photo “depicts several young men and women from our colony.” Epp says he recognizes a person in this image: “One of the women in the photograph is Ona. She’s slim, young, leaning forward to hear what the other girls are saying.”

The photograph comes from life. If a reader were to search the caption, they would be led to a photo essay in the Guardian, published in 2014, where photographer Jordi Busqué notes that the unnamed Mennonite men and women he photographed are part of Maria Fehr farm, Colonia Oriente, Bolivia.

The character of Ona is, of course, created by Toews. “Ona has not seen...