School the next day. I fell asleep in math. And geography. The principal invited me into his office ... Clearly these are not the best years of your life, he said to me. I felt almost drunk...
There’s a small but estimable body of novels about families falling apart under the pressures of religious zealotry. Two classic examples from the genre: “Tongues of Flame” by Tim Parks and “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeannette Winterson. Add to their company “A Complicated Kindness,” a scathing, bittersweet and twistedly funny novel by Winnipeg author Miriam Toews.
“A Complicated Kindness” recently won Canada’s Governor-General’s Award over competition that included Alice Munro’s latest story collection, “Runaway.” While Munro is undoubtedly the more accomplished writer, it’s easy to see why the judges went for Toews. “Runaway” gives us a Munro we already know well, while “Kindness” gives us a strikingly fresh and offbeat voice, portraying an intensely odd reality or combination of realities that few readers will find familiar.
Set in fictional East Village, a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba near the U.S. border, “Kindness” tells the story of the Nickel family, who one by one are ditching their tightknit and repressive hometown.
First to go is rebellious teenager Natasha. She’s followed by her mom, the manically upbeat yet from far from righteous Trudie. Both were personally excommunicated from the church by Trudie’s brother Hans, the leader of this stern, inbred community.
That leaves narrator Nomi and her schoolteacher father Ray stuck with each other at home a situation that, as Nomi becomes a miserable and rebellious teenager herself, grows increasingly untenable. It isn’t that Ray is mean to her. Instead, he’s so eccentric in his conduct (for one thing, he’s selling off all their furniture) and so debilitatingly split in his loyalty to his church and his absconded wife that Nomi fears she may not be able to leave him ever. Yet there’s clearly no future for her in East Village, apart from working at “Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker.”
Nomi, at least, no longer has nightmares about her rebel sister going to hell. And she’s beginning to be skeptical about a church that bans “the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ‘n’ roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewelry, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock.”
Nomi has no clue to where her sister and mother have gone. All she’s really sure of is that there’s another East Village she’d rather be living in the one in New York and she’s about to implode in her anxiety to escape to it.
That’s it for plot, apart from a secret or two about Trudie’s past awaiting revelation. Everyone in East Village knows Nomi is as bad a fit for the place as her mother and sister were. But no one can reach her as she acts out her frustrations, shaving her head, smoking dope, indulging in minor vandalism.
In Toews’ canny hands, Nomi is as vivid and exasperating as any teenager running amok. What makes her situation and the whole book different are her unusual surroundings.
East Village’s most direct ties are to its memory of German-speaking Mennonite communities in Russia and to its current communities in Paraguay (making for a local German-Spanish-English language barrier). At the same time that it’s a strict religious community, East Village is also a tourist attraction, filled with strangers come to gawk at demonstrations of the way Mennonites used to live.
The nearby U.S. border is a looming presence, too. Nomi talks of her dad “going … to Minnesota for a coffee,” and she herself likes to bicycle up to the border and “stare at America.” Toews, perhaps, is telling us something a little deflating about the Canadian mindset by having it be New York that Nomi dreams of rather than Toronto, Vancouver or, heaven forbid, nearby Winnipeg.
The huge penetration of pop culture into this guarded religious community is one of Toews’ subjects as well. Here, alas, the book falls short, because it’s unclear how Nomi comes into contact with all the movies and music she knows. This, and the circular meanderings and nonsequiturs of the teenage mind, which Toews renders so convincingly that they sometimes detract from the book’s momentum, are minor stumbling blocks.
What keeps you going are the odd workings and phrasings of Nomi’s imagination those, and the earnest yet sadly ineffective means by which family and friends in her embattled community try to reach out to her.
It’s this “complicated kindness,” ultimately, that makes the novel more generous than it is bitter in spirit, and more revealing.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.