A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

Published by Knopf Canada

246 pages, 2004


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Following Menno Home

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

Coming of age stories are powerful fodder for novelists. So powerful, in fact, that one grows weary of seeing them. And it was only after battling this weariness ("Another one of those...") that I started reading A Complicated Kindness. It was a battle worth fighting.

A Complicated Kindness reminds the reader why the coming of age story is so often trotted out. In the hands of an author more concerned with the telling of her tale than the smell of her own catharsis, this oeuvre can really hum.

Miriam Toews has impressed critics and readers with every one of her outings. Two previous novels -- Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding -- as well as a single work of book-length non-fiction -- Swing Low: A Life -- were all greeted with raves and showered with awards. Collectively Toews' works have won the John Hirsch award, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year award and the Alexander Kennedy Ibister award for non-fiction. Not hugely visible awards, not blazingly well-known critics, but notice, nonetheless. Almost all of it positive.

All of Toews' books have been good and worthy of note. But A Complicated Kindness is brilliant. Toews takes a potentially unassuming little story and makes it sing.

Her slice of the Earth here is a tiny Mennonite community in Southern Manitoba; her protagonist is Nomi Nickel, a 16-year-old girl who is finding the move to womanhood almost more than she can take.

Part of the problem is the fact that half of her family has disappeared. "The better-looking half," Nomi tells us as the book opens. And while it's a long time before the reader discovers just what happened to Nomi's mother and sister, we learn right away that she is living in the family home with her father, Ray, the gently eccentric shadow of the man Nomi's mother married.

Another component to Nomi's challenges is that she's coming of age in the modern world while living in the heart of a fundamentalist religious community: the Mennonites. Think Amish, but with cars.

We're Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform ... until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit....

There is also something annoying about a man who believes in complete humility naming a group of people after himself. And using his first name.

The religious references and oppressions could be tedious in other hands, but Toews handles this part of her story with the skill she brings to all aspects of her writing. Nomi's religion -- and sometimes her lack thereof -- is a part of her character. As telling as the color of her hair, the way she speaks and the way she interacts with her teachers, her friends and her father.

It becomes apparent that the town that has been choking Nomi's family was also it's single support. And some of the things Nomi hates most about her community are the things closest to her heart.

I'm sure that my mother's silent raging against the simplisticness of this town and her church could produce avalanches, typhoons and earthquakes all over the world. But there is a kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say. When they ask how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother. Even Mr. Quiring, the teacher I am disappointing on a regular basis, periodically gives me a break.

It's difficult to dissect this lovely book: to point directly to the single thing that makes it work. The fundamentalist aspects are looked at from an interesting place: through the eyes of a young rebel who has our sympathy from the first page. Oddly, though, Nomi's somewhat exotic background makes her less different than you'd think. That is, the storyteller's skill helps us find the commonalties rather than the differences. Nomi is not so very different, the reader finds, from any of us.

Throughout the summer of Nomi's coming of age, we watch while she tries to puzzle out what's become of her mother and sister and how her family came to this place in their lives. Meanwhile Nomi dabbles with drugs, sex and other things frowned on by her town that seem to offer relief from the oppression and depression she's trying to escape in her daytime life. We watch, in a way, while Nomi's life unravels -- her family half-gone, her best friend ill (or maybe just insane), her father ever less present, even though he's still there.

A Complicated Kindness is bittersweet, wise, tender, funny, sad and -- most surprisingly -- promisingly hopeful at its conclusion. Miriam Toews' third novel is astonishingly accomplished. | October 2004

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.