Reviews

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Lisa Nuch Venbrux

Beginning this book was like engaging in conversation with a Born Again pro-lifer at a clinic picket line.


A Complicated Kindness

Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Length: 246
Price: $24
Author: Miriam Toews
US publication date: 2004-10
Amazon affiliate
Amazon

On my first day of work at Indian Echo Caverns in the Pennsylvania countryside, I was trained by a Mennonite tour guide in a tight bun and Easy Spirits. She was my age, 17, but I guessed she was much older. Is she allowed to work here? I thought, then scolded myself for it. When I got to know her, she acted like any one of us, with fewer swear words and comfortable shoes. I had heard stories about Mennonite kids selling crack, and at once I began to believe it. They were as angst-ridden as the rest of us, which earned them respect in my narcissistic adolescent brain.

I tried to read Miriam Toews' heartfelt A Complicated Kindness with that teenage epiphany in mind. Nomi Nickel is a Mennonite girl growing up in a small god-fearing Canadian community called East Village. Ironically, Nomi's dream is to live in New York's East Village, the antithesis of her closed world. She grapples with a dysfunctional family, sex, drugs, and school; all against the backdrop of the unforgiving religious community she cannot escape.

We are introduced to Nomi's extraordinary life through ordinary means -- casual descriptions of daily and family life that reverberate powerfully thanks to Toews' perfectly calibrated tone. Set against the frigid Canadian countryside, the town seems chillier thanks to descriptions of the local business -- a chicken farm where the slaughtered birds hang like a nightmare over the young people destined to inherit a job at the chopping block.

The narrative reads like Nomi's diary. At first, the excessive use of the word "and", as well as mind-boggling non sequiturs, can be grating. Similarly, the lack of quotation marks throughout gets confusing. It does not take long, however, to begin understanding how effectively Toews writes a teenager. The tone is pitch perfect without becoming cliched. Set deep inside Nomi's brain, the story flows through her mind's distractions, buoyed by the sweet self-absorption of adolescent life. Through carefully chosen observations that sometimes might seem trite, unusually complex characters emerge.

Nomi's immediate family includes a rebellious older sister, Tash; a conflicted mother, Trudie; and her quiet father, Ray. The circle broadens to include her pious and locally powerful uncle Hans "The Mouth," and an aggravating boyfriend named Travis. Tash and Trudie flit like phantasms throughout, and we begin to understand that their existence in the book derives from Nomi's memories. Ray, on the other hand, appears fully dimensional and concrete. He is the rock of the family, part of its past, present, and uncertain future.

From a left-wing, non-religious, American viewpoint, beginning this book was like engaging in conversation with a Born Again pro-lifer at a clinic picket line. I expected some confusion, or frustrated fury. The great genius of Toews' meticulously designed narrative, however, is that all expectations are turned on their heads. Nomi's inner monologue manages to capture a loyalty to her upbringing, as well as the curiosity that promotes thinking "out of the box"; or in this case, out of the sloped roof of a whitewashed fundamentalist church. Nomi embodies the balance each of us grapples to achieve: understanding the faults of our upbringings on an intellectual level, and finding comfort in them on an emotional level. This simultaneous repulsion and attraction is what makes a small Canadian Mennonite girl universal to any reader. Nearly anybody of any political or religious background will feel personally challenged and deeply sympathetic to any number of characters in the book.

More than halfway through the fascinating, mundane daily life of Nomi Nickel, I began to understand that all the sameness in the scenery was building to some dramatic end. The mother, crazed in her repression, spends one memorable scene ranting and screaming at her brother "The Mouth" -- a strictly devout Mennonite leader who had rebelled as a teenager, tried to make his way in the world, and failed. Tash's announcement that she was an "atheist" sends shockwaves through Nomi's cerebral cortex. The father, Ray, stands out as the strongest and most tortured of all. Toews' subtle focus on Ray's dimensions is what gives the end emotional power.

Families are sometimes so strong that they turn against themselves, breaking apart instead of holding together. That lesson reverberates among deeply loyal communities the world over. A Complicated Kindness will remind you of just that: the complex and innocent humanity inside each of us that is too often shaped by human tragedy.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image