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?" Nomi has an innate sense that something is fundamentally wrong with her environment. But she recognises kindness, too, "in the eyes of people when they look at you and don't know what to say." Her uncle, "The Mouth", always knows what to say, and it never fails to be irrelevant and discouraging. But she values those whose love and concern go beyond the limitations of their prescribed answers, who can only love her and feel confused, without lashing out because they feel threatened by her ragged search to unite her family and find healing.
Nomi's dad, Toews' best character, embodies this combination of deep love and confusion. He holds rigidly to the prescribed order of the community while gently falling apart with grief. Wonderfully complex, Ray wears a suit every day, even gardening, wins an award for perfect church attendance and listens to the radio hymn programme every night. But he spends nights secretly rearranging rubbish at the dump and slowly selling off the household furniture while letting his daughter see, with a sad and affectionate humour, that he doesn't know the answers.
Toews addresses two different kinds of nostalgia: the oppressive desire of The Mouth to cling to concrete vestiges of a past lifestyle, such as the town's windmill, and Nomi's fond remembrance of living people and experiences in the community that are both shared and uniquely hers. Even though I desperately wanted to tell her at the end of the book, "fly away!" I was moved by her dad's loyal attempt to encourage and empower her in the only way he knows how.
I think readers who are confident they know everything about God already and have set answers to life's questions will struggle with this book and find it irreverent. But I think other readers will be inspired by Nomi's quest in faith to find acceptance, forgiveness, joy and a love which extends beyond tidy definitions.