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A Complicated Kindness [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

Miriam Toews
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 28 2005
Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister — as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief — and a growing sense of hypocrisy — cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.

Few novels in recent years have generated as much excitement as A Complicated Kindness. Winner of the Governor General’s Award and a Giller Prize Finalist, Miriam Toews’s third novel has earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists. In the Globe and Mail, author Bill Richardson writes the following: “There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to care, okay, comes to love.”


This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . .

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. 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, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
—from A Complicated Kindness


From the Hardcover edition.

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From Amazon

A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews's third novel, is a very funny book about going AWOL in Mennonite country. Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel lives with her depressingly cheerful dad Ray on the edge of East Village--not the hip one in New York City where she would prefer to be but a small, backward Mennonite town in Manitoba ruled by a pious pastor whom Nomi calls The Mouth. Several years before, Nomi's rebellious older sister, Tash, left town on the back of her rocker boyfriend's motorcycle. Not long afterwards, her mother, Trudi, also disappeared for reasons never fully disclosed. As Nomi explains at the outset, "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing."

As Nomi drives endlessly about the countryside with her own Lou Reed-loving boyfriend and puts off finishing an assignment for her oddly attentive English teacher, she pieces together her childhood memories in an effort to understand why she and Ray have been deserted. Toews's portrayal of teenage angst, Mennonite-style, is hilarious. East Village, Nomi observes, "was created as a kind of no-frills bunker in which to live austerely, shun wrongdoers and kill some time, and joy, before the Rapture." Regarding the pleasures of the next world, she quips, "I guess we'll be able to float around asking people to punch us in the stomach as hard as they can and not experience any pain, which could be fun for one afternoon." Nomi's steady patter of repartee and reminiscences grows a bit tiresome after a while, especially as this is a novel in which very little happens until the last 50 pages. Toews can't seem to resist a good one-liner, even at the expense of plot. For a light summer read with laugh-out-loud potential, however, A Complicated Kindness is the ticket. --Lisa Alward --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

A 16-year-old rebels against the conventions of her strict Mennonite community and tries to come to terms with the collapse of her family in this insightful, irreverent coming-of-age novel. In bleak rural Manitoba, Nomi longs for her older sister, Tash ("she was so earmarked for damnation it wasn't even funny"), and mother, Trudie, each of whom has recently fled fundamentalist Christianity and their town. Her gentle, uncommunicative father, Ray, isn't much of a sounding board as Nomi plunges into bittersweet memory and grapples with teenage life in a "kind of a cult with pretend connections to some normal earthly conventions." Once a "curious, hopeful child" Nomi now relies on biting humor as her life spins out of control—she stops attending school, shaves her head and wanders around in a marijuana-induced haze—while Ray sells off most of their furniture, escapes on all-night drives and increasingly withdraws into himself. Still, she and Ray are linked in a tender, if fragile, partnership as each slips into despair. Though the narration occasionally unravels into distracting stream of consciousness, the unsentimental prose and the poignant character interactions sustain reader interest. Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life's hard questions Oct. 11 2004
Format:Hardcover
I found this book fascinating. On first reading, this book seemed to be one teenager's long downward spiral into depression, interspersed with a few beautiful or humorous moments. But a shadowy glimpse of a some more complex themes drew me back to it for a second reading, where I was delighted to find the writing tight and full of well-chosen imagery and recurring themes.
The narrator, Nomi, writes near the beginning: "People here just can't wait to die, it seems. It's the main event. The only reason we're not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that's rich, she said. That's rich."
Nomi chafes against the inflexibility and lack of forgiveness in many members of her religious community, but as she struggles to understand the undercurrents which have driven her mother and elder sister into the void beyond the town, she begins to be able to tap into the honesty of her family to imagine something bigger and better than the only place she knows. "I have a problem with endings," she writes, and she cannot satisfy her English teacher by drawing her essays to a neat close. In the same way, she can't seem to accept her pastor uncle's neat package of rigid definitions explaining her existence, with no mysteries or forgiveness for weakness. When a nurse at the hospital criticises her invalid friend Lydia for being so needy, Nomi objects 'But isn't that what a hosp...(ital is for?)" When the church throws out a man for being unable to overcome alcoholism, the reader wants to ask, "But isn't that what a church community is for?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's not that complicated. Sept. 14 2006
Format:Paperback
I was reminded so many times while reading A COMPLICATED KINDNESS of the book THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD with its themes of family dysfunction, memory, repressed memories, struggles to freedom, and a host of other scenarios and ideas that played throughout this novel. Set in Manitoba, Nomi is the main character who struggles with her famlies religious zealousness and fragile existence. Dealing with the Mennonites and a coming-of-age tale that is anything but unusual, you'll find yourself drawn to this story in a way that won't let you put the book down. But the novel isn't all darkness. There's a great deal of humor and wit in it. If you liked the novels THE KITE RUNNER and BARK OF THE DOGWOOD, then this book will work for you. Of couse, the settings are entirely different for all three, but the same themes of struggle are there. Great stuff, all.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous! Jan. 21 2006
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I can't belive all the negative reviews. I loved this book. I've lent it to 5 people (all of them loved it) and I have a few more friends inline to read it. I laughed out-loud many times, my family even has little inside jokes about some of the characters. "Hide the sponge" is enough to send us into fits of giggles.
I loved the way the novel was written. The jumpy, sometimes confusing style reflects the way a young girl would tell a story. Listen to how teenage girls speak- Toews nailed it. It isn't the story of a grown woman looking back on her childhood, it would have spoiled the story had it been written in an adult tone.

The novel struck a chord with me as my family was disowned by the Mennonite community about 60 years ago. I had always wondered what it would have been like if I had been raised a Mennonite. This novel did a wonderful job of answering a lot of my questions. It's hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. Oh, so highly recommended!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Intriguing Look at An Unfamiliar Culture July 14 2006
Format:Paperback
Miriam Toews' novel, A Complicated Kindness, is an intriguing, almost voyeuristic look into an unfamiliar culture. It is essentially about a young girl's life growing up in an oppressive, small town, where her family and community are trapped in legalistic religious traditions. It is an example of how, in this case Christianity, but any religion for that matter, can destroy a family and community when the essential love, hope and forgiveness are removed from the tenets of their faith. Still, Toews is careful to show that even the most messed up religious fanatics have their own brand of kindness--however complicated it may be. The book held my interest throughout as I felt a strong empathy for the heroine and her family. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about religion gone amuck, other people's culture, or a young woman coming of age in difficult circumstances. Here's a warning though: it is not for those looking for an uplifting, light read or a tidy and hope-filled ending, as it is injected with sardonic humour and biting realism throughout the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a truly great book Jan. 5 2009
Format:Paperback
I consumed this book over the course of a few days. It was easy to read and I particularly enjoyed the casual writing style, the lack of use of parentheses to denote dialogue. It made it "easy" to get into Nomi's character.

My dad's side of the family is from a Mennonite background and having little connection to it growing up I appreciated the introduction, albeit quite cynical and negative at times. However, anyone who grew up in a small town on the prairies will find the story hits close to home. I certainly felt nostalgia for my own teenage years growing up in a tiny town.

I will read it again and other novels by this author.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars disappointing
I thought that the book was scattered.For me, it was not an enjoyable read. Finished the book and still wondering what it was about
Published 3 months ago by cassie edison-huntley
3.0 out of 5 stars A good read!
I thought this book was good. It was entertaining, and yet the feel of it was kind of depressing. Entertaining with the dark humour, (too dark for my tastes), as well as the... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Andrew Tomlinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
Arrived quickly and quality was as good if not better than in the description! Very happy to give book a second life!
Published 4 months ago by Owen Bouchard
3.0 out of 5 stars Hmmmm...
I have picked this book up 3 times and tried to read it, still trying to get through it. It is just not grabbing me from the start.
Published on June 20 2010 by Gulin Villeneuve
4.0 out of 5 stars "A work of fierce originality and brilliance."
Sometimes the jacket blurbs get it right.

This is a gem of a book. (I can't bring myself to call it a 'novel'. Maybe 'slices of fictional memoir' is how I'd label it. Read more
Published on Oct. 22 2009 by Schmadrian
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
This book is absolutely amazing. Sensitive, funny, engaging, I fell in love with it and have kept searching for another Toews book to give me the same level of reading pleasure,... Read more
Published on Oct. 25 2008 by Dani
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't bother.
I tried reading A Complicated Kindess. I have a rule about books...I'll allow 75 pages, and if you haven't got me by then, it's over. Read more
Published on Oct. 23 2008 by MC
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable
It is well written and unique in its style (if not the approach). The story revolves around the life of a teenage mennonite girl and disolution of her family. Read more
Published on May 2 2008 by Peter Cantelon
1.0 out of 5 stars speechless
i had to do a book report for this novel and i found it difficult to catch on . it was very blan and very hard to pay attention. no life to it.
Published on Dec 18 2007 by nella mella
1.0 out of 5 stars Awful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I bought this book when it first came out in paperback. I read about seventy pages and returned it the next day. This miserable teenager was
a complete bore. Read more
Published on Oct. 13 2007 by Carol Paterson
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