Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Complicated Kindness

Generally speaking, when I start reading a book, I keep going until I finish it. Lately, I've had the excellent luck to pick up one good book after another, but it doesn't always go like that. Like most avid readers, the sheer number of books I read means every once in a while I'm going to get a dud. For some reason, I don't like with the characters, I don't care about the plot, or whatever. It happens to everyone. For a lot of people I know, if they aren't hooked by a certain point, they stop reading; there are too many good books out there, they reason, to keep going with one that isn't keeping them up at night. Fair enough. I, though, usually stick it out. I have faith that something is going to happen (someone saw something in the book to make it worth publishing), so I plow on, and sometimes I'm rewarded and sometimes I'm disappointed, but very rarely are unfinished books left in my wake. Somehow, though, a really good one was. For the life of my, I cannot remember why I left Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness after only a dozen pages – I was probably distracted by something else – but I am so glad I picked it back up, because my goodness what a wrenching, funny, hoot of a book it is.

A Complicated Kindness is the story of Nomi Nickel, a teenage Mennonite living in East Village Manitoba in the late-'70s/early-'80s, I would guess. Half of Nomi's family – the better looking half, according to her – are gone, which leaves just her and her dad, Ray. Her mother, Trudie, has been gone for a while, and her older sister Tash left before that. Their whereabouts is a mystery, which leaves all possibilities open to Nomi's imagination. Ray is quiet, religious, and affectionate in a buttoned-up sort of way. He writes Nomi notes suggesting she go to school that day, he appreciates her system of cooking dinner based on an alphabet system (m-day might mean macaroni, or meat, or mushrooms, or whatever). Nomi runs wild.

Despite being brought up in a fairly strict Mennonite home, and being a believer as a child, Nomi is now caught in between belief and modernity. She smokes. She drinks. She wears tube tops and cut-off shorts and gets stoned and has a boyfriend. She is, for all appearances, a regular teenager, except she carries all kinds of Mennonite baggage filled with guilt and confusion over the leaving of first her older sister and then her mother. She is grief stricken and defiant; she doesn't fit into the quiet, orderly life of East Village, but she cannot bring herself to leave, even though she knows her only future if she stays is to go to work in the chicken-killing plant and then come home and keep cooking the alphabet for Ray.

To an outsider, to one of the many tourists who comes to visit the town, her life would seem small. But when told by Nomi, her day to day life is compelling and sad and often very, very funny. Nomi has a way of describing things that is so honest and blunt that it's hilarious, even when it's also a little sad. Beyond telling a story just about herself, though, Nomi's take on being a Mennonite is fascinating (and all the more so because Toews herself grew up as a Mennonite, which makes much of this side of the novel feel personal rather than researched). She is clearly torn between the way she remembers her life as a child, when religion was simple and the answers were clear, and the reality of becoming an adult with questions and uncertainties that her faith can no longer solve. It's an extra level of confusion to load onto being a teenager.

It sounds cliché (and I feel strange about saying it), but A Complicated Kindness is an exceptionally touching story. It isn't sappy and it isn't soft, but Nomi is such an incredible character that you can't help but feel her in your bones. You want so much for her, and you just don't know whether it can happen, and in that push and pull Toews has created the kind of character that changes your worldview – the kind of character who can keep you up at night – and thus one that will stay with you for a long time after you put the book back down.

A Complicated Kindness
by Miriam Toews
First published in 2004 (cover image shown from Seal Books edition)

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