Between 2005 and 2009, the women and girls of the Manitoba Colony—an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia—would often wake to find themselves bloodied, bruised, and confused. The wounds they suffered suggested sexual assault. Some members of the community blamed demons. Some suggested that the harm was just the product of overactive female imagination. Then it became clear that several men of the colony had been drugging their wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces with animal tranquilizers and raping them.

In Women Talking (Bloomsbury, April 2), acclaimed Canadian author Miriam Toews uses her own “female imagination” to give voice to characters whose experience is an echo of what happened in the Manitoba Colony. The novel is a record of two days of discussion as the women of the Molotschna Colony—Toews’ creation—debate whether to stay in the only home they’ve ever known or set out into a world about which they know almost nothing.

Toews Cover The decision to create a whole novel from dialogue is a daring one. The book’s title is a literal description of the book itself, and Toews laughs as she acknowledges, “Well, just women talking….This is gonna be such a drag.” But it isn’t a drag. It’s riveting, because it makes perfect sense. What emerges is a kind of chorus—Toews’ word—with some voices occasionally rising above the others.

In giving voice to these women, Toews was ever mindful of the fact that her story was based on actual events. “It's hard, right? Because these are real women, real kids, real victims—and real perpetrators and rapists,” she points out. And she knew from the start that she was not interested in reenacting the crimes against these women. She was interested in what comes after.

Ultimately, the women of the Molotschna Colony decide: “We want our children to be safe, we want to be steadfast in our faith, and we want to think.” They arrive at these principles through contemplation, conversation, and one author’s female imagination. It’s an extraordinary journey.

Jessica Jernigan is a writer and editor living in Michigan.