01 July 2005

A Complicated Kindness

Below is the next in an ongoing series of guest book reviews, this one by Paul Jessup, who can be otherwise found at his own blog.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
reviewed by Paul M. Jessup


A Complicated Kindnessis a haunted novel rich with the longing for a life more ordinary. With this book Miriam Toews drills into the core of any religious fundamentalist community: the worship of death and the longing for the living.

This is a story that takes place in a small Mennonite village and focuses on the narrator Nomi whose mother and older sister are missing. Their lack of physical presence paints the novel, which is written like a stream of interwoven unconnected memories. This gives the book a dream like feeling, an impression of what real memories feel like. Do not expect a traditional, linear story rife with plot. Expect a story told in the way actual memories occur, unconnected and unraveling.

In any other writer's hands this could be a failing for the novel. But with Toews's stark and lucid prose the reader is kept glued to the page as the characters reveal themselves through Nomi's memories. The dreamy aspect of the novel is enhanced by the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. This gives the book a Faulknerian objectivity that makes you feel distanced and yet actually there at the same time.

Every memory is tinged with the feeling of absence. There is an overwhelming heartbreak to the story that wrenches you forward through the haunted little town. Just when you reach a point in the story when everything feels hopeless, Toews drops in a wry and sarcastic bit of dark humor that brightens everything up. Like a tarnished gem in a trash heap, these moments of comedy bring hope to the story. She does this in a remarkable way that is not trite, nor condescending, but instead enhances the overall feeling of the story, and brings you closer to the reason why Nomi and her father never really leave their Mennonite homestead for a better life outside.

You follow Nomi's personal journey, scattered between memories of the past and the present. Everything is connected somehow, as she is in that stage of teenagerdom where we cling to the memories of our childhood and pursue a connection of our past selves to our present and future selves. There is a touching scene where she combs a barn looking for a dress she saw flutter by as a child. Both memories are connected in a realistic harmony that has its own direct tension without the need for pointless action.

Even though Nomi is a Mennonite, anyone who has grown up in a small town knows the pains she is going through. Toews makes the story real and universal, rather than small and isolated. Every friend she has, every word she speaks feels familiar. Her boyfriend acts like a guy we have met at one point or another in our real life, disgusted with the banality of school and obsessed with the certainty of their own genius.

All in all Toews pulls together an unnerving tale, filled with the haunted melodies of longing and the brilliant sarcasm that enlightens our existence. She makes a community of strangers in a strange land feel as familiar as the girl next door, and brings you into their world with such a certainty of prose that you are left wondering if you had actually entered Nomi's mind.