Friday, 1 May 2015

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness is a coming-of-age story set in a Canadian Mennonite community, a reclusive and devout Christian sect that's similar in its ways to the more familiar Amish, much to the fascination of the visiting tourists. Mennonites reject the modern world and all its temptations, instead living like 18th century farmers. But with TVs. Sometimes. The town's main industry is the chicken slaughter place and the town's youth look forward to illustrious careers slaughtering chickens before being called up to Heaven in the rapture.

The novel is narrated by 16 year old Nomi in a wry, deadpan style that's very endearing and often funny, in a bittersweet kind of way. She definitely has a sharp sense of the comedic tragedy of her life- musing on the bemused-looking mural of Jesus on the high street, why did their religious founder Menno Simons name his following after his first name? Why does he love damnation so much but isn't bothered about explanation? How is moving one's body to music a sin? Nomi's mother and sister have both left the family, separately and suddenly- but probably for the same reasons. Nomi recalls them in chunks, their reasons for their departures become more and more clear, and sadly inevitable as she offers her memories up to the reader. Her missing family haunt her, but Nomi's father is unable to give up the religion that he loves and that has formed him and Nomi finds herself unable to give up on her father. She is trying her hardest to hold everything together in a ramshackle house by the highway that is falling apart, and with a father with increasingly erratic behaviour. Though previously a devout believer and follower of her religion, Nomi is just beginning to question the lifestyle she has been brought up in in a traditional rebellious angsty teen style.

She and her band of disillusioned teen exiles spend their weekends dressing up as pioneers and churning butter in the mocked-up 'Ye Olden Times' dioramas for tourists, then drive around in pickup trucks, smoking dope, listening to Lou Reed and reading hipster novels and beat poetry. In many ways she's very much an  ordinary teenager- boys, music her parents disapprove of, barely noticeable acts of rebellion. Nomi declares her survival strategy to be using “drugs and my imagination”- her greatest weapons against a town and a religion so desperate to get a foot in the door of Heaven that they forget completely to live. 

I really liked Nomi as a character- she was kidding herself about ever leaving, and she knew that but she lied to herself anyway was a way to cope. She's smart, honest and naturally inquiring, all the things that hardcore religious communities seek to crush, and it's painful to watch her struggle to understand that and then to force herself to live with it. I loved the pitiful but loving relationship she had with her father too, the bond and the burden. They didn't speak much, but understood one another entirely, even if the motives and attitudes were completely different. The scene where she helps him clean up the rubbish at the dump is heartbreaking- this religion seems to have crushed them both.

Though it's not a particularly plot heavy book, it's a fascinating character study of Nomi and her religion, which will be pretty alien to UK readers. It's beautifully written with a mastery of language and image that I haven't seen in a long time. As it's not driven by action, the characters and their lives have to be compelling, as Nomi was a truly arresting narrator. It's a fast and engrossing read all about self-discovery and betrayal, family and escape.

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