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Book review: “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews

Sixteen-year-old Nomi opens her story by telling the reader that she lives with her father, Ray Nickel, in “that low brick bungalow” out on Highway 12. 

Her audience is someone who will know the place, someone who lives in or near East Village, a Mennonite town in southern Manitoba, about midway between a city that seems to be Winnipeg and the American border.  “Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window.  Nothing great.  The furniture keeps disappearing, though.  That keeps things interesting.”

It’s an odd opening, a bit askew.  The broken window?  The furniture?  The last sentence that, in Nomi’s smart-alecky way, hints at humor and something else.

The second paragraph begins:

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing.

It quickly becomes clear that Nomi and her father are moving through their days, one after the other, as if in a fog of grief for her mother Trudie and her older sister Tash who, separately, left East Village three years earlier without a word of where they were going and without any word, pretty much, ever since.

Much later in the novel, Nomi makes the observation:

It’s hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God’s will.  It’s hard to know what to do with your emptiness when you’re not supposed to have emptiness.

“Denounce them!”

It’s the early 1980s, and the East Village is a town that is populated by members of a particularly strict Mennonite church, a church that wants its people to stay on the straight and narrow in order to get to heaven, a church that shuns the world.  Actually, it also shuns some of its members.

It’s a town that exists in the world based on the idea of it not existing in the world.  It 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.  The idea is that if we can successfully deny ourselves the pleasures of this world, we’ll be first in line to enjoy the pleasures of the next world, forever.

In fact, Ray and Trudie’s first date apparently was to a shunning, and this fascinated Nomi at the age of six or seven, who badgered her mother with questions.

What did they do, I asked.  Oh, brother, I don’t know, she said….Well, she said, they may have been fooling around, I don’t know.  Fooling around how, I’d asked.  Oh, she said, misbehaving.  Kissing. Just fooling around.  And then what happened, I’d asked.  They couldn’t be part of the church, she’d say….Their families weren’t allowed to speak to them, she said…

I dug the shunning story….And everyone had to stand up in church and publicly denounce them.  Yeah! I’d say.  Denounce them!  I’d always loved the sound of that.

“Facsimiles of death”

That was then when Nomi had bought into the doctrines that meant, if she and Tasha and their parents kept their nose clean here on earth, they could be together forever in heaven.

Now, she sees the town and the church, headed by her uncle Hans, nicknamed Mouth of Darkness by Tash, for what it is, a soul-deadening place:

This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence.  I wonder if a person can die from it….People here just can’t wait to die, it seems.  It’s the main event.  The only reason we’re not snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime…

We are supposed to be cheerfully yearning for death and in the meantime, until that blessed day, our lives are meant to be facsimiles of death or at least the dying process.

“Assembly line of death”

And, as Nomi explains on the novel’s first two pages, her imminent future awaits at Happy Family Farms.

But then what the hell will [what she’s learning in school] matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyer belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world.

Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker.  I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

There are elements of A Complicated Kindness that suggest the hundreds of American novels and movies in which a plucky teen who just doesn’t fit in searches for a way to deal with and usually escape an oppressive environment of clueless parents and mindless social rules and a dead-end future.  Often, these novels play the teen’s situation for laughs and generally promise a happy ending.

Nomi — the name is short for Naomi — is certainly plucky.  She’s a wise-cracker with a keen eye for the absurdities of East Village, including the fact that the name is shared with “the area in New York City that I would most love to inhabit.”

But this novel is no laugh riot.  Neither is it a version of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.  East Village is a fundamentalist church ruling a civic entity, similar to Atwood’s Gilead.  But the strictures of the church aren’t aimed at putting women in their place — they’re aimed at keeping control over every single human being in the town.

And, in addition to Nomi’s grim comedy, A Complicated Kindness is unlike Atwood’s story inasmuch as its bleakness is counterbalanced by a kind of crazy hope.  Which is to say, by a kind of crazy love.

Indeed, at one point, working as she does throughout the novel to remember everything she can about her mother, Nomi finds Trudie’s passport with her black and white photo that the girl decides would be classified by a psychology textbook on the meaning of facial expressions as:

Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful.

“In Sin and Error, Pining”

Unlike Trudie (short for Gertrude), Tash (short for Natasha) and Nomi, Ray Nickel is a true believer, deeply attached to his Mennonite faith and this Mennonite town.

It’s clear early on that those three would have long ago fled East Village together if not for Ray.  Their love for him kept them in town — until, for Trudie and Tash, it didn’t.

This was the perilous line my father toed and still does, I guess. Torn — at least he was — between the woman he loves and the faith that keeps his motor running.  Although with my mom gone, there’s not much of a conflict any more.  I’d call the aura at our house a perversely peaceful one of hushed resignation.

Nomi writes that, recently Trudie’s brother Hans (the Mouth of Darkness), stopped in to borrow a socket set and asked Ray how he was.

My dad said oh, unexceptional.  Living quietly with my disappointments.  And how are you?

I never know if he’s joking when he says things like that or not.  He always signs his Christmas cards to people with:  In Sin and Error, Pining….Raymond.

This is a man who lives in a dark, depressive cloud but who, nonetheless, takes one step after the next, working each day from morning to night to do what he needs to do.  It seems clear that, even before Trudie’s disappearance, he had this cloud — this is a man who goes to the town dump to rearrange the garbage into sensible categories.  And, of course, his cloud is thicker since she left.

Nomi, whose story aches with love for Trudie and Tash, aches with love for Ray.   And, unlike the “better-looking half” of the family, she has stayed with him — despite her own oppressed feelings and her throbbing grief and her Happy Family Farms future.

“A complicated kindness”

A Complicated Kindness is an aching book.  Nomi is hopeful despite the bleakness of her present and the bleakness of her future. 

The title comes from early in the book when Nomi is considering the idea that, if something happens in one part of the planet, it can cause something to happen on another part of the planet:

I’m sure that my mother’s silent raging against the simplisticness of this town and her church could produce avalanches, typhoons and earthquakes all over the world.

But there is kindness here, a complicated kindness.  You can see it sometimes in the eyes of people when they look at you and don’t know what to say.  When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother.

It turns out, at the end of the book, that one of those extending “complicated kindness” to Nomi is also a betrayer of her family.  Still, the term fits the church members who generally aren’t cruel or evil.  They’re folks born into a world, the world of East Village, and trying to live their lives as best they can within the faith they share.

Beyond this, though, the title A Complicated Kindness is a description of how each of the members of Nomi’s family live with and then don’t live with each other. Separation doesn’t break the vital ties they share with each other — doesn’t break the love they share with each other. 

In the oddest of ways in this heartbreakingly hopeful novel, they stay together by turning their backs.  If that doesn’t make sense, I guess it’s because you haven’t lived in East Village.

Patrick T. Reardon


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