In this stunning coming-of-age novel, award-winner Miriam Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager whose family is shattered by fundamentalist Christianity "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing," Nomi Nickel tells us at the beginning of A Complicated Kindness. Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, her days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village. Not the East Village in New York City where Nomi would prefer to live, but an oppressive town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada. This darkly funny novel is the world according to the unforgettable Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi's droll, refreshing voice, we're told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known. A work of fierce humor and tragedy by a writer who has taken the American market by storm, this searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.
A Complicated Kindness did this for me. If you haven't already read it (I think I might be the only one my age who hadn't) it is told through the witty/despairing/smart voice of sixteen year old Nomi Nickels. She lives with her father in the Mennonite community of East Village, Manitoba after Nomi's mom and her sister skipped town. Nomi tries to deal with the loss, as well as her own crumbling religious faith and her emotionally distant and distracted father in the months that follow.
I don't know why exactly this book spoke to me- perhaps it was the strong-willed, yet hopelessly lost voice of Nomi. Perhaps it was because she listened to Keith Jarret (the Koln concert of course) on her record player just like I did when I was a teenager and she loved how he made noises when he played, just like I did. Mostly I think I loved Nomi because she is one of the undisputed heirs of Holden Caulfield: just as perceptive and smart with observations about the world that break your heart to make it bigger. And she is just as screwed up by the hyprocrisy of the world she lives in and the loss of everything she holds dear. Just like Mr. Caulfield.
Yeah. That was what got me.
The book focuses on Nomi's cynical, sarcastic view of her world, a world her older sister Tash abruptly left one day, three years previously, in a van with her boyfriend. Nomi's mom Trudie made a similar vanishing act months later, leaving 13 year old Nomi and her father Ray to, basically, limp along as best they can. While the members of the community and the school system see signs of a problem, their advice, limited and useless at best, only leads to further displays of outward frustration and rebellion by the troubled teen as she struggles to make sense of what has happened to her family and what the future has in store for her.
I did enjoy this story. Yes, there is a lot of anger, frustration, rebellion and abject complacency displayed by the various characters that could turn people off this one. As well there should be. I would find it suffocating to grow up in a community where my only career goal, if I was to remain there after graduation, was to strive for a job at Happy Family Farms, the local abattoir, chopping the head off of chickens for nine hours a day. Forget moving to the city and coming back to visit, because coming back, or maintaining any ties with the community, including your family, isn't exactly an option. Toews, who also comes from a Mennonite family background, gives Nomi a humorous yet heartbreaking voice.
Toews is good at presenting damaged souls in her stories. Damaged souls that have the strength to preserver, if precariously, in their search for the light and their way forward through the gloom that surrounds them. This is a story that I do recommend.
Thankfully it was a quick read because I wouldn't have wanted to waste any more time on this one.
Although I felt that the story itself was't as strong as it could have been, I still give this 5 stars because I loved the way Miriam Toews tells a story.
This was the first book I read by her and I plan to read more.
This story might have been interesting if it was written by the Dad. But the way Naomi tells it, is just boring.
Thanks Monica for lending me this book!
According to Nomi Nickel, the sixteen-year-old narrator of A COMPLICATED KINDNESS, this sums up what it is to be a Mennonite. And for someone who grew up on the fringes of Mennonite culture, I can attest that to a teenager, this is EXACTLY right.
Miriam Toews, the author of this wholly astonishing work, is also a Mennonite, having grown up in Steinbach, Manitoba, the holy land for the Canadian Mennonite. Appreciating the importance the Mennonite culture places on it’s beliefs and heritage, Toews is also intimately familiar with the adolescent yearning of wanting to break free, to fly away, to be anywhere except here. And the combination of these two factors is nothing less than marvellous.
Nomi is not a happy child. Her mother has disappeared, and her sister Natasha has recently followed her mother into unexplained absence. As Nomi searches the community for clues as to their abandonment of her and her father, the novel slowly builds into a culture clash between the world she knows, and the universe she wants.
Nomi may very well become one of the great characters in Canadian fiction. An atypically brave teen, Nomi is possessed of both surprising insight and unbridled youthful angst, as well as a brittle yet believable humour. As may be expected, this goes against the norm for the highly religious East Village, the Mennonite community she was born to. As her quiet uprising gains the notice of The Mouth, the local minister who also happens to be her uncle, Nomi finds that the meaning behind her mother and sister’s disappearance is much closer than she thought.
Toews, while poking fun at a religious zeal that at times resembles a less violent, softer version of the Taliban (at least to her young mind), never lets her novel become a treatise against religious intolerance. Rather, A COMPLICATED KINDNESS celebrates our past while reminding us that leaving one’s past is not the same as rejecting it. Nomi needs nourishment that her life cannot provide, yet Nomi is wise enough to see the value such an upbringing can provide. It is the struggle to reconcile your beliefs with your sensibilities that makes us all human, and the best of us more so.
A COMPLICATED KINDNESS also marks Toews growth as an artist. While her first novels marked her as a warm and funny writer with gallows of humanity, KINDNESS is a dramatic turn of both depth and talent. Her first works were an artist learning to fly; A COMPLICATED KINDNESS is the work of an artist who can not only fly, but who trusts herself to soar high above, in the upper echelon of emotion and risk.
Evaluation: Miriam Toews (pronounced Taves) does a great job of presenting us with the mind of a disaffected teenager, but really, do you want to hang out with one of those for a whole book? And actually I found the book quite depressing (even though some of it was darkly funny), because Nomi seemed to be on the edge of a breakdown, not a bit surprising given the destructive influence of her overly punitive community. And, like any teenager, a lot of her complaints, while well founded, were very repetitive. After a while, I wanted to escape Nomi and her life as much as Nomi did!
But don't just listen to me! This book won the 2004 [Canadian] Governor General's Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada’s largest literary prize for fiction.