A complicated kindness: a novel

by Miriam Toews

Paper Book, 2004

Call number




New York : Counterpoint, c2004.


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.… (more)

Media reviews

Those of us who felt oppressed as teenagers can easily recall how any act of rule-bending, whether it was puffing a cigarette or starting an ill-advised romance, could seem an enormous yet thrilling risk of outsized proportions.
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Winnipeg Free Press
[Toews] has produced a work of fiction that resounds with truth.... That is at once a profoundly funny book, and a profoundly sad one, which will often leave readers wondering if they should laugh or cry.
The Guardian
Exquisitely written and faceted.... Heartbreaking and humorous... From beginning to end the book is unusually calibrated and incredibly compelling.
O, The Oprah Magazine
A darkly funny and provocative novel.
Toronto Star
Truly wonderful.... A Complicated Kindness is one of the year's exuberant reads.
The New York Times Book Review
Brilliant... there is beauty and compassion in [Toews's] portrayal of Nomi's struggle.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wiremonkey
The cracking of my heart seems to be happening all too frequently when I read these days. I would make an effort to avoid the damage (my heart is beginning to look like a crumpled piece of paper left out in the rain) but the unlikeliest books keep scrunching it up in their cardboard fists.

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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.
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
The narrator of this story is 16 year old Naomi 'Nomi" Nickel, a high school senior struggling to grow up, understand life and what it all means in the small, dead-end southern Manitoba Mennonite community of East Village. You see, East Village and its residents live a strained, conflicted life. On
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one hand, they are proud of their Mennonite ways, to the point of suffocation and contradiction of what is and is not allowed in from the world surrounding them, while on the other hand, maintain a fully operational museum/"theme park" of their Mennonite heritage for the droves of American tourists coming up to witness this 'quaint, simple life", even if it is completely contrived. Lets be honest. How do you promote a clean, pious background when the town's teenage population appears to be running wild, doing drugs, consuming alcohol and just have dreams of being anywhere but here and the adults are struggling with what appears to be their own internal conflicts and demons?

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.
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LibraryThing member bhowell
I absolutely loved this book. An intelligent young woman grows up in a small, close minded Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. The paranoia and religious hatred are exposed in a devastatingly funny story that, at heart, is achingly sad. While a replica pioneer village draws American tourists,
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most young people face a future working at the local chicken abbattoir. Nomi Nickel tells her story with grit and humour but there is a terrible grief underlying her banter, the disappearance of her sister and mother. Both had been shunned by the community. The cruelty, misogny, and superstition of religious fundementalism is searingly exposed in this wonderful book.
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Boekenbeestje
This book cheered me up and made me laugh during a time in my life when the last thing I felt like was laughing. In between the funny bits are some deep and insighful observations (sometimes the two go together) about life and religion.
Although I felt that the story itself was't as strong as it
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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.
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LibraryThing member cait815
Like Mrs. Klippenstein's husband, this book is almost perfect. I loved every page.
LibraryThing member LindaWeeks
Well, I'm not sure what all the hype over this book is about but I have to say I was disappointed. I felt no real connection to Nomi and her disjointed ramblings and and I was left frustrated by the sheer quantity of unanswered questions. What was her dad thinking, leaving this girl after her being
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abandoned by her mother and sister already?
Thankfully it was a quick read because I wouldn't have wanted to waste any more time on this one.
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LibraryThing member booksaplenty1949
I normally avoid books which have won any kind of prize, or even been nominated. But I read this for a book club. My usual practice was thoroughly vindicated. A Canadian Prairie Catcher in the Rye: teenage angst, conflicting emotions, sentiment, self-pity. Extremely repetitious. Full of cheap shots
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at easy targets. An unconvincing ending, but by that point I had ceased to care.
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LibraryThing member kellyn
This was my second reading of this wonderful novel. I paid more attention to the language this time since I already knew the heartbreaking, redemptive outcome. Toews knows of what she writes: the spirit-deadening restrictions imposed by religious leaders, the desire to fit in yet free to explore
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your own path, the powerful love within a family that in the end can provide grace. The price of breaking away from the herd is expensive and leads to nearly unbearable actions yet eventually each one in the Nickel’s family ventures out on their own. Toews manages to make understandable the inexplicable conformity many are willing to give to satisfy their religious yearnings. It is Toews gift that she also makes understandable the incredible sacrifice made by Ray to provide a way of escape to his beloved daughter, Nomi.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
This is a coming-of-age story set in a small Mennonite town, East Village, in southern Manitoba. The narrator-protagonist, Nomi (Naomi) Nickel, lives with her father Ray as she completes her senior year of high school -- envisioning nothing in her future except killing chickens in the local
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slaughter house. Her elder sister Tash (Natasha) had escaped the town three years earlier with her boyfriend, and her mother, Trudi, left shortly afterward under unexplained circumstances. She's not doing well in school, especially in her English class, as her teacher refuses to accept any of the subversive topics she wants to write about. The events of the year mirror that of millions of teenagers in small towns -- taking up with a new boyfriend, smoking pot, going to wild parties, worrying about her hospitalized best friend, but Nomi also takes care of the household and her father, a devout Mennonite whose life has been shattered by the loss of his wife and his life as he knew it. I found the book beautifully written with descriptions of the natural world, Nomi's speculations about her parents' lives, and her periodic pondering of how she navigates her own life. The novel is funny and sad, but not the least bit sentimental.
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LibraryThing member francescadefreitas
I never really believed in the main character, so I didn't enjoy this story of family destruction in a small Mennonite town.
LibraryThing member icolford
In A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews captures the spirit of boredom and desolation that comes from being trapped in a backward small town like few authors of her generation. Set in the Mennonite settlement of East Village in remote southern Manitoba, near the US border, the novel is narrated by
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16-year-old, pot-smoking, wise-cracking Nomi Nickel, daughter of Ray and Trudie Nickel and younger sister of Natasha (Tash). The focus of Nomi’s story is the gradual breakup of a family that, on the face of things, never had much of a chance. When the story begins, Nomi (actually Naomi, but she dropped the ‘a’) and her father Ray are the only two Nickels remaining in the family home, Tash having absconded three years previously with her boyfriend Ian, and Trudie taking off under more mysterious circumstances a few weeks later. Nomi often contemplates the bleak, soul-crushing future that awaits her: graduating from high school, fifty years of killing chickens at the slaughterhouse on the edge of town, and then dying. But despite neglecting her schoolwork and an outward attitude that ranges from sullen to rebellious, Nomi’s sense of responsibility is fully formed, and in the absence of her mother and sister, and driven by love and a sense of duty to take care of her helpless, bewildered father, she has picked up the household chores, cleaning, doing laundry and cooking meals. Ray’s tortured dilemma is the novel in microcosm: a devout Mennonite who willingly toes the line and does everything that’s expected of him, but who also loves his wife and daughters, all of whom chafe feverishly against the restrictions of a faith that demonizes the pleasures of the modern world and instructs its adherents that serving God is the only reason for their existence. The novel’s chief antagonist is Trudie’s brother Hans, who has risen through the ranks and wields something like absolute power in the local Mennonite community. Toews does not tell a straightforward story. The novel is loosely structured. But Nomi’s narration, peppered with non-sequiturs and skipping freely back and forth between past and present, is not difficult to follow. Moreover, Nomi’s teenage voice is charmingly cynical, endlessly entertaining and absolutely convincing. Miriam Toews’ breakthrough novel was greeted with universal acclaim upon its publication in 2004 and landed on numerous award shortlists. A stunning achievement.
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LibraryThing member lahochstetler
Nomi Nickel feels trapped in her small, Mennonite Manitoba town. East Village, Manitoba, combines strict religiosity with all of the career opportunities inherent in a chicken-rendering plant, and has brought nothing but strife to Nomi and her family. At the book's start Nomi's mother and sister
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have already run off, escaping the strictures of East Village. Nomi spends much of her time dreaming about reuniting with her mother and sister, reminiscing about the past, and trying to escape the strictures of East Village. Toewes does a brilliant job of narrating as Nomi, a troubled teenager. Much of Nomi's resistence seems to come from her perverse sense of humor, which sometimes distracts the reader from just how tragic her situation is. Nomi's is a world with few opportunities and no real solutions, and the novel is certainly a cautionary statement on the dangers of ideology without thought.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
a very critical look at the Mennonite community in Manitoba, the way of life and oppressive fundamentalist upbringing by a former member of the church. Narrated by a 16 year old girl’s voice, which, I don’t have much doubt, belongs to the author herself. Great narration, interlaced with deadpan
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humour in most unexpected places.
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LibraryThing member dimestorenovel
This book was aclaimed in Canada, very favorably reviewed in national papers and was described as "humorous". The book was readable but not very remarkable. It certainly wasn't humorous. Sort of sad, but not humorous.
LibraryThing member msjoanna
I absolutely loved this book, though it was not at all what I expected. I'd thought that the book would have more focus on the Mennonite church and its practices, but instead the book was one of the more wonderful character-driven novels I've read. The book fell apart in the final chapter, but I'm
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willing to forgive the author not knowing how to end because the rest fo the book was such a delight to read. The book captures the experience of faith followed by questioning in a way that was startling and unusual. The setting of the book -- in a rural Mennonite community in Canada -- managed to work brilliantly.
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LibraryThing member miyurose
This was an unusual book. The writing is very disjointed and jumps around a lot in time, but it fits since it's the scattered narration of a very confused and lost 16 year old. I'm not sure how accurate this portrayal of a Mennonite child is, but Nomi's world is very sad and lonely. I enjoyed the
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tenderness she shows her father, who is just as sad and lonely as she is. The ending offers a little explanation, but there is still a lot left to the unknown.
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LibraryThing member Miche11e
Naomi is a self-centred 15 year old growing up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Her older sister was shunned by the community, and her Mother left after her elder daughter, leaving Naomi with her Dad. Dad’s a nice guy, but not much of a parent. Naomi is into all kinds of trouble.

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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!
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LibraryThing member lovelynbettison
A Complicated Kindness is a coming of age story. The main character Nomi Nickels is a sixteen year old girl growing up in a strict Mennonite community where, like most teenagers, she feels alienated and alone. The book is an interesting window in the life of a girl who is funny and terribly sad.
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Toews does an excellent job maintaining Nomi's unique voice and perspective throughout the story. Sometimes it did get to be a little too much for me though. At times it was difficult for me to sympathize with Nomi because I felt like the narrative remained angst filled and annoying. I didn't feel like Toews showed much of the beauty that this girl might have inside.

I enjoyed the exploration of religious restrictions. I know nothing about Mennonites, so reading a story that takes place in a Mennonite community was fascinating to me. I, of course, will take all of what I read with a grain of salt because I have no idea what the author's biases are toward or against Mennonites. I find it difficult to believe Nomi could get away as long as she did with behaving that way. I just wonder about the authenticity. It doesn't ring true to me, but I don't really know.

Nomi lives with her father, Ray. Her mother Trudie and sister Tash have both left the community. Slowly as the book unfolds you find out why.

The narrative style seemed too distant at times, but there were some beautifully written passages that kept me reading. I ended up enjoying the book, but I gave it three stars because if I wasn't reading it for a book club I don't think I would've bothered finishing it.
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LibraryThing member crystalmorris
Nomi's character perhaps needed more development, more than the constant negativity. Disjointed structure of the novel (lack of punctuation) requires very careful reading and possibly rereading. A good novel to discuss teenage angst and the struggle to define one's identity.
LibraryThing member shelleyraec
I found this book an interesting read with a unique perspective on a sub culture that doesn't really exist in Australia. Not a fan of religion at the best of times i liked that the character struggled so honestly with the issues she was faced with and the ambivelance she feels.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Nomi Nickel is a rebellious 16-year-old in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada. Her mother and older sister both are missing (we don’t find out why until the end), and now she lives only with her somewhat disconnected dad Ray. Nomi doesn’t have much to look forward to except a job
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at a chicken slaughtering farm, and feels trapped as well by the ultraconservative religious strictures of her life. There is supposed to be no makeup, tattooing, sex, dancing, smoking, drugs, or rock-and-roll, although these taboos don’t stop Nomi. She has a boyfriend, Travis, but they don’t connect much except physically. And even that doesn’t seem very rewarding. The story, basically a stream of consciousness, digressive monologue by Nomi, has been compared to Catcher In The Rye, with Nomi as a female Holden Caulfield. To me, Nomi seems also a bit like a non-pregnant Juno, the independent-minded character from the 2008 Oscar-winning screenplay by Diablo Cody.

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.
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LibraryThing member oldblack
This is a story about bizarre lives. On one hand we have the Mennonite community who live such strange lives that American tourists come to stare at them. Most of that Mennonite community are presented as a distant observer would see them, and hence we tend to see them as just plain crazy religious
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nuts. On the other hand we see the narrator and her family in more detail and as more complete human beings - and yet they're still weird. Who wouldn't be weird in that situation though? The thing about this book which made it so interesting for me was the father-daughter relationship, and the father himself. Most readers would probably say the father character was a hard-to-believe-wacko. I say "That could be me..I could (do?) behave like that" Ultimately the story is about the potential power of love, in particular the love between the father & the daughter. As a father who has a daughter, I found it a surprisingly powerful statement of hope (and I'm not generally a hopeful person).
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LibraryThing member ShelfMonkey
“Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or
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staying up past nine o’clock."

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.
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LibraryThing member librarybrandy
I'm halfway through this and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. There's not much I'd call a plot, besides Mennonite girl coming of age, but even that's a bit of a stretch. The narrator (Nomi) is mostly recalling things that happened at some vague time in her past; the chronology is difficult (at
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best) to follow, and the voice (to me) is just blah. I wanted to like this, but I just couldn't.
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LibraryThing member Allisinner
A very intersting read that I couldn't put down. Nomi's voice is complicaed yet clear at the same time. Her feeling of isolation is very reminiscent of Holden Caulfield but her devotion to her father and belief that her family will have a happy ending gives her an anchor. Nomi feels like a real
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teenager in the fact that she is not hyper-selfaware like teens on TV and movies, but not like many teenagers acts, on intstinct and emotions not really being able to express the why of her actions that adults desire to have explained. For me, I'll carry away from the book is the unconditional love she has for her family, which is touching and sad.
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