Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Canadian Book Challenge: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Title and author of this book? A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews.

Fiction or nonfiction? Fiction.

What led you to pick up this book? I've wanted to read it since early 2005, when I saw Nancy Pearl's recommendation. Aaron jogged my memory by mentioning the book one day, then he later located it at What The Book? and I bought it.

Summarize the book, but don't give away the ending! It's either the late 1970s or very early 1980s. Nomi Nickel and her father, Ray, live alone in a small, isolated Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada. Nomi's mother and sister have been gone for 3 years. The sister, Tash, left first. The mother followed soon after. They were each excommunicated by the church, which meant that the still-practicing Mennonites had to shun them. Nomi and Ray haven't heard anything from either of them in all this time. Nomi was a strong believer as a child, but the rupture of her family has caused her to question Mennonite ways and act out rebelliously -- cigarettes, drugs, and contemplating sex with her boyfriend, Travis. Ray is just as confused, but is still devout. Not questioning, he works out his confusion by taking drives at night around town, cleaning up the town dump, selling off the furniture in his house bit by bit, and just sitting in his yellow lawn chair, thinking and talking about physics. He doesn't seem to know how to help Nomi or himself. Nomi is close to graduating high school and is sure that she'll immediately go to work at the local chicken processing plant. She refers to this unwanted future often, with typical gallows humor.

What did you like best about the book? The strong characterizations of Nomi, Ray and Trudie (Nomi's mother) and Tash (Nomi's sister). Nomi is constantly recalling her mother and sister, so they're very much a presence in the novel. Actually, this novel is mostly character study. Things happen very slowly, if at all. I like this kind of writing, but if you prefer more action, this might not be a book you'd enjoy.

Have you read any other books by this author? No, this is my first one, but I'd gladly read more. There's supposed to be a new novel by Toews out this year. She also wrote a memoir about her bipolar father called Swing Low. I'd really like to read it and see how he compares with Ray in this novel. Both were schoolteachers.

What do you think of the main character? I felt sorry for Nomi as she struggled for answers, and thought some of her bitter comments about Mennonites and religion in general were scathingly funny, but she seemed like a typical teenager reacting typically in a crisis situation. Far more interesting to me was her father, Ray, the Grade 6 teacher at the local school, and his bizarre methods of coping while still staying within the strictures of his religion.

Any other interesting characters? Trudie's brother and Nomi's uncle, Hans. He's an elder in the community. Tash and Nomi nicknamed him "The Mouth Of Darkness" which got shortened to The Mouth. He keeps a close eye on everyone in the community to make sure that they're staying in the proscribed bounds, and likes to hold excommunication and shunning over their heads as a constant threat. At one point, Nomi compares him to Stalin and Quaddafi. He's almost too eager to follow through and use both when the occasion arises. What makes him interesting is that when he was a young man, he went through his own rebellion and ran away to the city. Things didn't work out well for him out in the world, so he came back into the fold. For someone who was shown understanding and mercy and granted forgiveness, he doesn't seem to possess these qualities himself.

Another interesting character is Lydia (Lids), Nomi's childhood friend. She has some sort of illness where her skin is so sensitive, she can't stand to be touched. Her parents had been treating her at home with tomato juice and prayer, but she's in a hospital now, where the doctors can't figure it out and the nurses wonder if she's faking.

Share a quote from the book. "We're Mennonites. As far as I know, we are some of the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if your a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe, a man called Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing...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 staying up past nine o'clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno."

"That's the thing about this town -- there's no room in in between. You're in or you're out. You're good or you're bad. Actually, very good or very bad. Or very good at being very bad without being detected."

"You know how some people, I'm not sure which people, say that something that happens on one part of the planet can make something else happen on another part of the planet? Usually, I think they mean some kind of geological event, but I'm sure that my mother's silent raging against the simplisticness of this town and her church could produce avalanches, typhoons and earthquakes all over the world. But there is 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."

What about the ending? Something happened that I was almost positive would happen, but then the following event surprised me a bit. Also, there was a character that exists on the fringes of Nomi's narrative throughout the novel, and this character turns out to responsible for some of the damage that was done to the Nickel family.


John Mutford said...

I liked this book a lot until it started winning all sorts of awards. Then I started thinking, "yeah, it was good...but not that good." I don't know. Maybe that says more about me.

raidergirl3 said...

I haven't read this one, bad Canadian I am, but it sounds pretty good. You've reviewed it nicely, giving a good picture. I've heard mixed reviews, but that could be award backlash.
However, I read her A Boy of Good Breeding and found it terribly amusing and lovely in a fluffy way. I would give it a try.

Melwyk said...

I actually disliked this book quite a lot. It irritated me that it began winning all sorts of awards; it was the same as John said, it was ok, but not GREAT. I felt it was a YA book, and I've read better ones.

Chrisbookarama said...

I liked it too. I enjoy those character study type books. I did find her life sad though.