Review: A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

Though it may seem like this photo is a perfect depiction of what one would expect to find in a Mennonite Community, I learned that in A Complicated Kindness, this is not the case. Having said that, I’m almost disbelieving that the main character of this book, Nomi, can get away with some of the stuff she does in what’s supposed to be such a conservative community.

Small Mennonite town in the Prairies, spunky girl just starting to question her beliefs living alone with her father, a cast of supporting characters that are simply described who seem to immediately appear right in front of your eyes – this book is killer.

Let me say first that I love Miriam Toews. Her writing is extraordinarily simple, yet has the power to make you blink, look away from the page and take a moment to think about what you’ve just read. This book is written in a non-linear format with the narrator, Nomi, taking us on a journey through her memories as well as a fairly short period of time in the present. Though usually a bit difficult for me to follow non-linear works, I find that I’m with Nomi at every turn and when she reminisces, I understand why and I take her lead unquestioningly. Her narrative is filled with moments of the darkest humour. At times last weekend at the cottage, I had to stop and read certain passages aloud to my friend, Brian. He said, “Sounds like you. If you were a Mennonite, that is.” I’ll take it as a compliment. There are also extremely touching moments made all the more accessible by how well developed the characters are. Nomi’s father is not the stock character that when reading, you go “Oh, he reminds me of my Uncle Ed.” No – Ray is an extremely unique character who almost comes across as someone with mild Asperger syndrome. Regardless of how he acts, nothing ever seems out of character for him. Not once throughout the book, which really keeps you in the moment. There’s something deliciously satisfying about knowing how a character will react.

Here are some highlights from turn downs in my book:
1) “Be mysterious, I told myself. I’d been going after that laughing-on-the-outside-crying-on-the-inside look for a while. It all had to do with the eyes and the mouth and certain pauses in your speech. It’s kind of tragic and romantic. I wasn’t very good at it, but I liked the bull-shit bravado of it, you know, the effort of trying to cover something up and show something at the same time.” [Page 30-31]
– This to me is such a great example of Toews’ craft. It’s the simplest thing to read, yet I totally know what she’s talking about. I have pulled that way more times than I would ever admit, let alone putting into words so perfectly what it was that I was doing. It was such a neat little passage to read.
2) “I lay in my bed and waited for that thick, sweet feeling to wash over me, for that unreal semi-conscious state where the story begins and takes on a life of its own and all you have to do is close your eyes and give in and let go and go and go and go.” [Page 134]
– This is where I literally closed my eyes and just thought “yes. Yes I know exactly what you mean.” The adjectives are so masterfully chosen and the idea, again, is just so simple.

I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone. Though it takes place in Canada, it’s not a particularly “Canadian” book. In fact, I think mentioning “going across the border to go the States” is more of a geographical focus, but it remains a portrait of a certain way of life in the Prairies. Anyone who has read Toews before will, I’m sure, pick this book up without hesitation, because that’s the kind of audience she creates. If you haven’t read any of her work yet, I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is. I simply flew through this book.

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