Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Complicated Kindness

My Mom's best and oldest friend is part of a book club, and over the last couple of years I have begun looking to her for suggestions. She was the one who introduced me to Water for Elephants and Room, both of which have become favourite reads, so when we were over for Christmas eve dinner, I began perusing her bookshelves for some ideas. One of the first ones that she handed me was A Complicated Kindness, written by the award wining Canadian author Miriam Toews, and this weeks book. Told with exquisite tone, Toews seduces the reader with her tenderness, astute observation and piquant humour. This novel captures the struggles of a family and its individuals in a fresh, wondrous style, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable. Toews offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love. But despite this complexity of family tensions, much of A Complicated Kindness is pleasantly plotless. The looseness of Nomi's worldview, the sometimes blurry nonfocus of it, the unexpected sideways humour, make this book the beautiful and bitter little masterpiece it is. This searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

"We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. 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, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno."

In this stunning, insightful, and irreverent coming-of-age novel, Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager, whose family is trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion, and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. A laconic and restless sixteen year old Nomi rebels against the conventions of her strict Mennonite community where nothing happens with mesmerizing authenticity, and tries to come to terms with the collapse of her family. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing" Nomi explains. As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister who "was so earmarked for damnation it wasn't even funny", and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. When Tash left town, she tried to persuade Nomi to leave their mixed-up family too. ''Walk away,'' she commanded. ''What have I taught you?'' But Nomi was not, and is not, the type to cut and run. ''You taught me,'' she thinks to herself, ''that some people can leave and some can't and those who can will always be infinitely cooler than those who can't and I'm one of the ones who can't because you're one of the ones who did and there's this old guy in a wool suit sitting in an empty house who has no one but me now thank you very, very, very much.''

Nomi lives with her gentle, uncommunicative father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless and adrift schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she plunges into bittersweet memory and grapples with teenage life in a "kind of a cult with pretend connections to some normal earthly conventions." Once a "curious, hopeful child" Nomi now relies on biting humor as her life spins out of control—she stops attending school, shaves her head and wanders around in a marijuana-induced haze. Still, she and Ray are linked in a tender, if fragile, partnership as each slips into despair, and live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the unsentimental prose, the poignant character interactions, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to love.

"This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . ."

Toews embodies Nomi's voice with such an authentic and manic charm that it's hard not to fall in love with her. Her portrayal of teenage angst, Mennonite-style, is hilarious. Nomi’s a natural dissident, with the kind of personality that can’t help but expose hypocrisy and fear – a girl fated to overturn rocks, uncovering hissing toads. While scraping away the appearances in her small town, she offers what she finds in a voice that is wry, vulnerable, sacrilegious and, best of all, devastatingly funny.

In novel full of original characters, Toews has created a feisty but appealing young heroine. As an indictument against religious fundamentalism, A Complicated Kindness is timely. As a commentary on character it is fresh and inventive, and as storytelling it is first rate. Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both.

A Complicated Kindness works its way up to a powerful ending through the accumulation of anecdote and detail. Toew’s sense of the absurd works brilliantly to expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist kindness, a love in reality all too conditional. A Complicated Kindness, at its core, is a depiction of the battle between hope and despair. Yet along the way we are treated to an unforgettable summer with a heroine who loses everything but is ultimately able to hold on to life, to a sense of herself, and to maintain her courage and optimism In the face of a world without any guaranteed happy endings.

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