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A Complicated Kindness

by Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews’ second novel starts with a funny-sad zinger: “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” and right away we’re hooked on our narrator’s mournful smarts. Laconic, restless, sixteen-year-old Naomi “Nomi” Nickel doesn’t fit in. Her mother and sister left town three years ago. Her Dad is adrift. Her best friend is in hospital with a mysterious disease. Her family home is starting to sprout broken windows.

The big picture is even worse: every functioning adult in Nomi’s hometown of East Village, Manitoba, is Mennonite. There are wall-to-wall Mennonites – “Mennos” – running everything, and not very successfully. East Village is a dump, a nasty pit stop with one foot prematurely in heaven, and the other bent on stamping out pleasure and giving the boot to smart kids.It is Nomi’s misfortune to be a thoughtful, honest, wild-child savant in a town that is a repressed, deceitful, ignorant hellhole.

Nomi tries to fend off creeping righteousness by using “drugs and my imagination.” She and her band of teen exiles drive around in pickup trucks, smoking dope, reading hipster novels, and listening to Lou Reed, dreaming of city people and city pleasures as distant as satellites. Sometimes they sit out on the flatlands and watch the distant lights of other, exhilirating places, before they have to return to their own brand of comic-tragic reality: “Main Street is as dead as ever. There’s a blinding white light at the water-tower end of it and Jesus standing in the centre of it in a pale blue robe with his arms out, palms up, like he’s saying how the hell would I know? I’m just a carpenter.”

What’s interesting about this puritan paradise is that it survives by attracting tourists. East Village is one of those back-to-the-millpond “heritage” sites, tricked up to look like a pioneer village. Nomi has a job wearing hoop skirts and churning butter. To Nomi, her theme park duties amount to bogusness piled upon bogusness.

Left alone with her father, Nomi spends much of her time remembering her mother, Trudie, and sister Natasha. Tasha kicked against the town’s pricks whenever possible, and fled when events took a dangerous turn.

Nomi’s mother took seven weeks longer to quit East Village, cracking almost overnight after 40-odd years of Mennonite chill. Trudie is the victim of a sort of Chinese water torture of joylessness, administered drip by baptismal drip by her own brother, Pastor Hans. Nomi calls him Hands, or The Mouth. The Mouth is like any other twisted guru, “in love with the notion of shame, and he trafficks the shit like a schoolground pusher, spreading it around but never personally using.” The Mouth’s function is to swallow the sinful.

Nomi, of course, is doomed to be pushed from East Village herself, or abandoned. She’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. When we last see her she seems oddly hopeful, no longer blunted by her hometown’s onward-marching Christian soldiers.

Toews is no stranger to small prairie towns, or to Mennonites. Her previous novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, about the wacky-yet-life-affirming adventures in a Manitoba town, was fatally whimsical. Swing Low, a biography of her Mennonite father, was superbly presented, but suffered from a credibility problem: Toews couldn’t pull off a male voice, and her father’s inner life in the book didn’t seem to reflect the Second World War generation.

This new novel is the work of a better, flintier author: the teen-girl perspective rings true, and Toews’s penchant for tweeness is long gone (except for the book’s name, which is mumsy). A Complicated Kindness is affecting, impeccably written, and has real authority, but most of all it is immediate. You – as they say – are there.

A Complicated Kindness is like waking up in a crazy Bible camp, or witnessing an adolescent tour guide tear off her uniform and make a break for the highway. But a few questions remain: where will Toews go from here? And: do we really need another bittersweet account of small-town life, even if it is done well?