Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2011

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

Canada has produced some terrific authors, and I’ve read quite a few of them over the years. I discovered some of them because they won the Booker Prize (Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Robertson Davies, Rohinton Mistry and Yann Martel), and others because they won the Commonwealth Writers Prize or the Giller Prize, (Canada’s most prestigious award and equivalent to our Miles Franklin Award). These authors include Elizabeth Hay, Richard B Wright, Susan Vreeland, Frances Itani amongst others. Timothy Findley was an accidental discovery at the Galignani Bookshop in Paris when I had run out of books to read, and then of course there’s Saul Bellow, who was born in Canada, on every must-read list there is.

Two culprits who’ve also added to my ever-growing TBR with blog posts about Canadian fiction are Trevor, who blogs at the Mookse and the Gripes, and Kevin from Canada. These two have very entertaining blogs and the commentary is often half  the fun.  Like Tom from A Common Reader, they are not afraid to share honest opinions about a book, cutting through hype with reviews you can trust.

It was Kevin’s post about the latest book from Miriam Toews that inspired me to seek out A Complicated Kindness, (2004) which won the Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction, was nominated for the Giller Prize and ended up being a bestseller for ages in Canada.

It’s an interesting book. Autobiographical in origin, it’s a coming-of-age novel which explores the angst of a teenage girl brought up in the Mennonite sect. Nomi Nickel’s family has been torn apart because her mother and sister have left town while she – longing to escape the strictures of her religion – is still at home with her father and trying to solve the mystery of their sudden departure.

Narrated from Nomi’s point-of-view, A Complicated Kindness reveals the harshness, inflexibility and hypocrisy of the Mennonite Faith as she sees it [1]. Nomi is both naïve and worldly-wise and she has the usual ambitions of a teenager, but her life is circumscribed by strict rules and the fear of eternal damnation. No dancing, make-up or fraternisation – and excommunication (shunning) for those who break the rules.

While the community is bound together by their belief that they – and only they – are The Chosen, their strict observance of a quaint lifestyle (which brings tourists and cameras to gawk at them) limits individual choice. For those who can’t fit in or break the rules in any way there is no alternative but to leave, and the community is in denial about this, acting as if the departed had never existed.  The effect on Nomi’s bereaved father, torn between his religion and the love of his wife, is catastrophic.

Grieving the unexplained loss of her mother and sister and her father’s inability to cope, Nomi finds her religion confusing and claustrophobic.

I just want to be myself, [she says] I just want to do things without wondering if they’re a sin or not. I want to be free. I want to know what it’s like to be forgiven by another human being … and not have to wait around all my life anxiously wondering if I’m an okay person or not and having to die to find out. (p58)

I’ve read a few books about this conflict between a religious belief in an after-life and living in the everyday world,  and as a non-believer, I find them fascinating.   However, Toews’ choice of an unreliable narrator makes me wary of accepting Nomi’s world view.  She’s an engaging character with a droll sense of humour and a rebellious attitude, but she’s a teenage girl going through a turbulent phase and a traumatic event. Nomi is smoking and drinking and messing around with drugs so her grasp of reality is both heightened and fragmented.  It’s very well done, but I don’t know how much of it the reader is meant to believe.

There are multiple pressures on Nomi.  Apart from her father’s odd behaviour, school (of course) is awful, and her teachers are universally insensitive.  The usual teenage discontent and adolescent angst is exacerbated by the presence of tourists who show her another world that is denied to her.  Then there is her relationship with her boyfriend, Travis, (who may or may not be simply randy rather than romantic) and her friend ‘Lids’ is in hospital with an unnamed illness, which is complicated by her parents’ efforts to cure her with prayer and tomato juice.  There’s no one in Nomi’s life who can offer her any kind of meaningful support to deal with all this; her religious community presumably thinks that her faith should be enough.  (Nomi’s patronising report of her encounter with the school counsellor is very funny indeed).

The trouble for me, was that after a while the voice wore just a little a bit thin. The wise-cracking, the cynicism, the plaintive soul-searching disguised as a joke and the self-harming behaviours – while seemingly authentic – made me grateful that this was only a short book…

Still, A Complicated Kindness tackles an important issue.  Religious fundamentalism of any kind is a worrying trend.   Thanks, Kevin, for recommending this!

A Complicated Kindness

Author: Miriam Toews
Title: A Complicated Kindness
Publisher: Isis, 2005
ISBN: 9780753173589 (large print edition, 291 pp)
Source: Kingston Library
Availability:
Fishpond A Complicated Kindness

[1] There are, apparently, wide variations in the way Mennonites practice this religion, ranging from Progressives to Horse-and-Buggy Old Order adherents. Nomi’s community seems not to have rejected technology in its entirety and Hans ‘The Mouth’ Rosenfeldt while a powerful force in the community has not succeeded in imposing an archaic form of Dutch (or is it German?) instead of English as the lingua franca.  Nomi comments satirically on the drinking, adultery, and exploitative practices of her religious leaders in acquiring property but of course I have no idea if any of this is true of Toews’ Mennonite community in Canada or anywhere else.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonite.


Responses

  1. 1. You are quite right on the wide range of sects that exist under the Mennonite banner. Toews is from Manitoba where some of the more “progressive” Mennonites are leading advocates of the pacifist global engagement that lies at the heart of modern liberalism. At the other end of the spectrum, to this day, are those that reject all technology (although their buggies are now metal capsules, almost like space vehicles). And then there are the repressive versions, such as the one portrayed in this book.
    2. As for language, it is Deutsch, not Dutch — as you surmise, a peasant German.
    3. I would not see the narrator as “unreliable” so much as “incomplete”, an adolescent who is still learning. Having said that, I had the same response that you did — frustration rather than engagement tended to be my response as the book went on.
    4. I grew up in the other Canadian home of Mennonite country (Waterloo county in Ontario). My grandmother’s best friend, Edna Staebler, is the “queen” of Mennonite cuisine (they would hate that title) — if you ever run into a copy of her cookbook, Food That Really Schmecks, have a look.

    My view of this novel was that it was good, not great. I do think Toews will eventually write a truly outstanding one.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Kevin, and for clarifying the situation in Canada – it’s so interesting the way these sects divide and subdivide whereas the Catholic church has remained a great monolith.
      Re the narration: the reason I label Nomi unreliable is because there are sections of it where she is stoned. But more importantly – and it’s because she’s such a convincing teenage voice that I say this – teenagers are often hyper-critical of their elders and judgemental. So when she writes about the hypocrisy of the Elders, it’s in a one-dimensional, black-and-white way. As you say, as Toews matures as a writer – lives a life, meets more people, has more experience to draw on – her writing will develop and be more nuanced.
      BTW I forgot to say in my review that it’s interesting that I found this obviously well-read book in my library. It’s one of three copies. Toews has done well to achieve this kind of market penetration in faraway Australia so early in her career!


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