(Photo: Carol Leowen)
I first read A Complicated Kindness around the time it came out, in 2004, but after rescuing this copy from a grocery store bargain bin I decided it was time for a re-read. Reading a bargain-bin bestseller is part of this book’s story. Miriam Toews was relatively unknown when she wrote A Complicated Kindness, which may have made her feel safe enough to write vulnerable prose with a harsh portrayal of Mennonite society. Then it became a national bestseller and a grocery store paperback, because as well as being honest and harsh it is also easy to read with a quirky narrator. It manages to be both popular and literary fiction – its intellect is easy to miss, since Toews sticks to the smaller words of her teenage protagonist, but the insight is there.
The first time I read A Complicated Kindness I was only a few years older than Nomi, the narrator. I think she was similar enough to me, living in a town similar enough to mine, that I took for granted how well she was written. Both Nomi and I walked the empty streets of our towns at night, looking through living room windows like they were television screens. Nomi likes to go to “Purple City”, by staring into the flood light at the post office until her eyes adjust, which makes all other lights look purple. I used to do this at the Manitoba Legislature. As a teen I thought it was the coolest, most exclusive thing. Now that I’m a decade older, I’m more impressed with Toews’s representation of teenage past times and pleasures. There is a lot of lazing about. But the lazing is filled with tiny milestones and revelations about how society works. And terrible, life-altering drama happens too – it’s not just kid stuff.
I’m stumped by how the plot is hung on the line. Nothing much happens in the first hundred pages. On the first page we learn that half of Nomi’s family is missing. Wondering how that came about is certainly enough to sustain a reader for twenty pages of setting and character sketch, but I don’t know how I stayed hooked until the strong double-narrative (Nomi in the months leading up to her mom and sister’s departure, and Nomi in the months leading up to her final crisis) finally takes shape around the one-third mark. I was hooked, even though it felt like I was just reading a bunch of vignettes. Perhaps Nomi’s voice is enough to captivate us? The intrigue of a Mennonite village?
I’m uncomfortable with the representation of Mennonites in this novel. Mennonites have no redeeming qualities. Toews grew up Mennonite and she’s allowed to have damning opinions. But all the good guys in A Complicated Kindness are non-Menno, and all the church-goers are ignorant or evil. Maybe it is that simple – maybe pacifist religious society in the form of Mennonite communities is always a bad idea. Toews would know better than I. But it makes me uneasy when anything’s simple.
Of course A Complicated Kindness is not simple. It is beautifully ambiguous. Love, in particular, is depicted in a variety of subtle forms powered by age, gender, religion, and personality. It comes as a note on the table, a failing grade, a gentle hair wash, or a favorite song. It shows itself in a commitment to stay, or a decision to leave.