A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews
ISBN: 0676976123

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A Review of: A Complicated Kindness
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

It is a truism of the teenage years that, no matter how hip and easygoing one's parents may seem to others, one will nonetheless inevitably pass through a period of acute embarrassment at every word that leaves their lips, a phase during which the mere sight of them inspires fantasies of fleeing to faraway places to reinvent oneself, free from the taint of association with such hopeless cretins. If adolescence is tough for most, it is infinitely more so for Nomi Nickel, the narrator of A Complicated Kindness, the third novel by Winnipeg writer Miriam Toews. Poor Nomi is saddled with not only the "butt-clenching" quirks of her parents, but the idiosyncrasies of her entire community of East Village, Manitoba, a town with no train and no bar, whose inhabitants are mostly related to one another (her parents are cousins), and whose Main Street leads nowhere. Nomi and her family are Mennonites, members of what her mother calls "the world's most non-progressive community." However, don't pick up A Complicated Kindness expecting a quaint story of pious prairie dwellers living the simple life. Toews eschews such easy clichs, opting instead to explore the messiness and complication of human emotions that are submerged beneath this image of simple piety. In her portrayal of Mennonite teenagers desperately rebelling against the orderly view of the world held up to them by their faith, Toews creates a Canadian Catcher in the Rye for the post-Jagger generation, with a narrative voice at once heartbreakingly honest and defiantly cynical.
The novel takes place during the 1970s. After the departures of her beloved older sister, Tash, and then her mother, Trudie, Nomi lives alone in her small town with her bewildered father, who spends his evenings desperately attempting to bring some order into his life by organizing the garbage in the town dump. The curfews and sanctions most teens rail against are multiplied for Nomi, and are imposed and enforced not merely by her parents but by the whole of her community, following the tenets of her religion's founder, Menno Simons:

"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, jewelry, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o'clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno."
Nomi, like Holden Caulfield before her, is repulsed by the phoniness she sees around her, but in her world, that phoniness has its roots in her community's restrictions not only on behaviour, but ordinary human emotions and reactions. As Nomi reflects, "It's hard to know what to do with your emptiness when you're not supposed to have emptiness." The teens of East Village cope by listening to rock music, smoking cigarettes and drugs, drinking, and having casual sex. In short, these children of adults who refuse to say the word "party" act out by partying with a vengeance. Unfortunately, in the artificial village which is the town's main industry, tourists are not interested in seeing these things; rather, "they pay good money to see bonnets and aprons and horse-drawn wagons", and the community obliges.
Toews is adept at showing the contradictions inherent in life for a twentieth century Mennonite teenager. Nomi's boyfriend Travis has a job at the museum, which requires him to put himself on display, reading a Bible by candlelight while sitting "behind a rope in the authentic replica housebarn pretending to be the husband of a fake pioneer girl in a long skirt and bonnet." When not in her bonnet, the "pioneer girl" can usually be found wearing the uniform of a typical "Menno Girl": tight jeans, Greb Kodiak boots, tube top, Farrah Fawcett hair, and heavy makeup. The majority of the town's population of teenagers seem comfortable with this double life; Nomi, however, is tormented by the strict dichotomy by which the community is run: "You're in or you're out. You're good or you're bad."
The starkness-and fraudulence-of these choices finds representation in the town's Main Street, which stretches from a representation of "good" in the form of a statue of Jesus that "looks like George Harrison in his Eastern religion period working for Ringling Brothers" to a warning against "bad" by a giant billboard that reads "SATAN IS REAL. CHOOSE NOW." Tellingly, there is nothing beyond these two options, apart from two fields of dirt. As Nomi observes, in frustration: "Main Streets should lead somewhere other than to eternal damnation. They should be connected to something earthly, like roads." This oversimplification of life, the stubborn denial of complexity or options, and the outright rejection of anyone who dares to question the status quo lead Nomi into increasingly erratic, desperate, and violent behaviour, as she spirals ever downward toward a climax that manages to strike the reader as both shocking and inevitable.
The present-tense narration of Nomi's unraveling alternates with Nomi's childhood recollections, which reveal that once she, like her father, found comfort and stability in the order provided by the Mennonite world view. However, unlike her father, who desperately clings to any flimsy semblance of order as, one by one, his wife and daughters abandon him, Nomi grows increasingly aware that the limitations are fabricated, arbitrarily imposed first by Menno Simons and lately by the current leader of the community, her Uncle Hans, or as Tash renames him, "The Mouth of Darkness": "Billy Joel's okay but the word heck isn't. Reach for the Top, fine. Swiss Family Robinson, no way." Her discovery of the hypocrisy and provisional morality of the adults who are setting such random rules leads to an overwhelming cynicism, frustration, and contempt for her world and an obsessive desire to flee for New York City. Yet even this dream of escape is tainted, because "[w]hen you're a Mennonite you can't even yearn properly for the world because the world turns that yearning into comedy. It's a funny premise for a movie, that's all. Mennonite girl in New York City."
Yet despite the many prohibitions, restrictions, and excommunications, Toews shows that there is a very real affection running through Nomi's community. As Nomi says, "[T]here is a kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say." In her individual characters, as well as in her portrayal of the Mennonite community, Toews shows the complex reality beneath the stereotypes; even "The Mouth of Darkness" is not a monster, but a sympathetic human being whose repressive behaviour may have roots in personal tragedy. These are not unkind people, simply human beings who have retreated from the pain and complication of human experience and emotions into a system that provides them with a simple set of rules and codes to make sense of the world. However, as Toews skillfully shows us, sometimes the world just doesn't make sense, and to pretend it does is to ignore those very things that make us human. One of the most touching scenes in the novel involves Nomi washing the hair of her friend, who lies in the hospital with an illness that neither medical nor religious community can identify or cure. Nomi alone accepts the mystery for what it is and does what she can for her friend's pain, gently washing her hair as the two girls sing "Shine a Light", from the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.
Nomi's first-person narration is one of the great strengths of this novel, but it is also-not unlike Holden Caulfield's narration of his own nervous breakdown- intensely painful to read at times. Toews has struck exactly the right note with Nomi: simultaneously defiant and vulnerable. This is one of the most sympathetic, memorable, and believable narrative voices in recent Canadian fiction, from an author who shows promise of becoming a major voice in Canadian literature.

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