Miriam Toews • A Complicated Kindness

This was the full extent of my knowledge about A Complicated Kindness prior to reading it: 1) it’s about Mennonites, 2) the author is Manitoban, and 3) it won awards. These three grains of knowledge combined in my head to form an idea of what this book must be: a serious novel about religion (Mennonite), a literary book in the stylistic sense (award-winning), about life in a small town (Manitoban). That I wanted to read such a book tells you something about my current mood.

So what do I find in the book itself? Breezy writing from a teenage woman’s perspective. Short sentences. Fragments. Drugs and rock and driving around aimlessly and smoking cigarettes and dreaming about New York. Serious about religion, yes, but in a less ponderous and more cutting way than, say, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Full of intensity and humour and desperation. It’s such a sad book.

But I was right about life in a small town.

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness. 2004 novel about a disillusioned Mennonite teenager growing up in 1980s Manitoba. Recommended.

 Peter Wtewael, Kitchen Scene

Peter Wtewael, Kitchen Scene

Written from the perspective of a teenage Mennonite, Nomi Nickel, in small-town Manitoba near the US border in the early 1980s, A Complicated Kindness is a book without a plot in the traditional sense. Narrative propulsion comes from the gradual revealing of family and personal secrets and from immersing the reader in a specific mindset, so that by the end of the novel you feel the meaning of its title.

To the extent that you do feel what Toews means by “complicated,” she is successful. The style might not be my favourite, but I got completely sucked in. At one point, I was reading it in a café over my lunch break and I started crying. (I cry a lot these days.) It was the scene where you finally see Nomi’s sister leaving.

The mindset you are immersed in is both highly specific, Mennonite, and more general, small-town. I know next to nothing about Mennonites, except that they’re one of the stricter fringes of Protestantism. You learn how important adherence to dogma is, and how the religion is involved in every aspect of daily life. Let us say that this novel is not the kindest portrayal of Mennonites.

The book also examines small-town life. For me, it brought up memories of living in small towns in Wyoming, and that empty culture shared by North American small towns that produces so many bored, vaguely rebellious, and self-destructive adolescents. Many people I’ve known over the years, American and Canadian, who lived that small-town life talk about that same feeling. A Complicated Kindness is a great small-town book, though again it’s not the kindest portrayal.

Nomi’s father, Ray, is a teacher, and her mother, Trudie, does a number of things. Nomi has an older sister, Tash. Trudie and Tash are rebellious sorts, and have left, separately. How their family came to be in this state and what the effects of it all are on Nomi and Ray is what unfolds over the course of the book. We witness Nomi’s gradual slippage into drugs and self-destruction, and Ray’s repressed, confused, inadequate response to everything.

I was initially put off by the style, but the intensity and persistence of Toews’ writing won me over. Here’s a characteristic passage: “But for now, he was tripping ‘cause our house had been shot at and things were as they should be, as he had suspected they had been all along, so he could relax and get rid of stuff that was keeping him down. He kept on saying corny things even while bits of glass dropped onto the living-room carpet and I glared at him stupidly. I don’t know why. It’s an act. It’s a thing we do when something strange has happened and we don’t know what to say about it.”

Ray, the he in that quotation, is a fascinating character. He’s impenetrably repressed. Slow to react if he reacts at all, he drives hundreds of kilometres in the middle of the night, wears a suit and tie at all times, talks to people about how interesting radioactivity is, and organizes the town dump. Many of the scenes between Ray and Nomi are heart-breaking. They have a sort of communication, a sort of rapport, but it’s insufficient.

Nomi fits neither the religion nor the town, but she’s not by nature as rebellious as her mother or sister. She’s a dedicated person who’s unable to reconcile herself with loss of faith, loss of family, and empty, small-town, Mennonite life.

Early in the novel, Nomi writes: “But there is a kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don’t know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother.” Unless I’m mistaken, Toews never explicitly mentions “a complicated kindness” again, but she has seeded this idea in the reader. You look for this complicated kindness, and by the end you feel the emptiness of the kindness Nomi is offered.