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A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

A Complicated Kindness (original 2004; edition 2007)

by Miriam Toews

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1,927595,373 (3.64)193
Title:A Complicated Kindness
Authors:Miriam Toews
Info:Vintage Canada (2007), Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Canadian, fiction

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A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (2004)

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    The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham (nessreader)
    nessreader: Both first person coming of age novels about young girls in repressive religous communities.

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This is a coming-of-age story set in a small Mennonite town, East Village, in southern Manitoba. The narrator-protagonist, Nomi (Naomi) Nickel, lives with her father Ray as she completes her senior year of high school -- envisioning nothing in her future except killing chickens in the local slaughter house. Her elder sister Tash (Natasha) had escaped the town three years earlier with her boyfriend, and her mother, Trudi, left shortly afterward under unexplained circumstances. She's not doing well in school, especially in her English class, as her teacher refuses to accept any of the subversive topics she wants to write about. The events of the year mirror that of millions of teenagers in small towns -- taking up with a new boyfriend, smoking pot, going to wild parties, worrying about her hospitalized best friend, but Nomi also takes care of the household and her father, a devout Mennonite whose life has been shattered by the loss of his wife and his life as he knew it. I found the book beautifully written with descriptions of the natural world, Nomi's speculations about her parents' lives, and her periodic pondering of how she navigates her own life. The novel is funny and sad, but not the least bit sentimental. ( )
  janeajones | May 10, 2019 |
In A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews captures the spirit of boredom and desolation that comes from being trapped in a backward small town like few authors of her generation. Set in the Mennonite settlement of East Village in remote southern Manitoba, near the US border, the novel is narrated by 16-year-old, pot-smoking, wise-cracking Nomi Nickel, daughter of Ray and Trudie Nickel and younger sister of Natasha (Tash). The focus of Nomi’s story is the gradual breakup of a family that, on the face of things, never had much of a chance. When the story begins, Nomi (actually Naomi, but she dropped the ‘a’) and her father Ray are the only two Nickels remaining in the family home, Tash having absconded three years previously with her boyfriend Ian, and Trudie taking off under more mysterious circumstances a few weeks later. Nomi often contemplates the bleak, soul-crushing future that awaits her: graduating from high school, fifty years of killing chickens at the slaughterhouse on the edge of town, and then dying. But despite neglecting her schoolwork and an outward attitude that ranges from sullen to rebellious, Nomi’s sense of responsibility is fully formed, and in the absence of her mother and sister, and driven by love and a sense of duty to take care of her helpless, bewildered father, she has picked up the household chores, cleaning, doing laundry and cooking meals. Ray’s tortured dilemma is the novel in microcosm: a devout Mennonite who willingly toes the line and does everything that’s expected of him, but who also loves his wife and daughters, all of whom chafe feverishly against the restrictions of a faith that demonizes the pleasures of the modern world and instructs its adherents that serving God is the only reason for their existence. The novel’s chief antagonist is Trudie’s brother Hans, who has risen through the ranks and wields something like absolute power in the local Mennonite community. Toews does not tell a straightforward story. The novel is loosely structured. But Nomi’s narration, peppered with non-sequiturs and skipping freely back and forth between past and present, is not difficult to follow. Moreover, Nomi’s teenage voice is charmingly cynical, endlessly entertaining and absolutely convincing. Miriam Toews’ breakthrough novel was greeted with universal acclaim upon its publication in 2004 and landed on numerous award shortlists. A stunning achievement. ( )
  icolford | Apr 16, 2019 |
I have very mixed feelings about this book. There were times that I just wanted to put it aside, there was not much going on, and other times I kept reading to see what was going to happen to Nomi.

This book is sad and depressing, but Nomi does not give up. She fights the only way she can by rebelling against the religious rules that have caused her mother and sister to leave the small town they live in. Her father seemed to be weak and pathetic, but he made the ultimate sacrifice for what he believed in, his family. Once I got into the book, I was disappointed in the ending. What happened to Nomi? What happened to her mother and sister? What about her dad? There are so many loose ends in this story. I do not know a lot about the Mennonite community, but their way of life and the power of their leader seemed a bit harsh. I often say the same thing about a lot of our Canadian Authors, it is either humourous or depressing, not a lot in between. This fits the latter. ( )
  Carlathelibrarian | Feb 5, 2019 |
I read this for the Canadian Author Challenge in 2016. It's a grand picture of a young girl's life, in a Mennonite town in Manitoba in the 1970's. Although there are many lifestyle restrictions, and the possibility of excommunication (shunning) always exists, it often feels as though this story could be about any young girl raised in any conventionally religious family--not terribly different from my own American Baptist cousins growing up at about the same time. I knew so many people whose religion dictated their dress, or activities, or food choices that I was always fairly comfortable with my simple Methodist upbringing that seemed to only forbid things that were actually against the law. Nomi Nickel, like any normal teenager, rebels against the rules and authority, yet loves her fractured family and wants to impress her English teacher even while she seems to be neglecting the writing project he has set for her. There is a bit of a mystery and a "shocker" at the end that I didn't see coming and wasn't particularly shocked by. There's an interesting exploration of love and sacrifice here as well. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Oct 6, 2018 |
Reminiscent of Cathcer in the Rye, we get to know a young Mennonite teen who is straining at the confines of her community. Her mother and sister have mysteriuosly disspaeared, her father id not functioning and her hormiones are racing. I quickly fell in love with this strong, confused gril, who reminds me of the girl in the movie "Juno". ( )
  Rdra1962 | Aug 1, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
Those of us who felt oppressed as teenagers can easily recall how any act of rule-bending, whether it was puffing a cigarette or starting an ill-advised romance, could seem an enormous yet thrilling risk of outsized proportions.
[Toews] has produced a work of fiction that resounds with truth.... That is at once a profoundly funny book, and a profoundly sad one, which will often leave readers wondering if they should laugh or cry.
added by GYKM | editWinnipeg Free Press
added by GYKM | editPeople
Exquisitely written and faceted.... Heartbreaking and humorous... From beginning to end the book is unusually calibrated and incredibly compelling.
added by GYKM | editThe Guardian
A darkly funny and provocative novel.
added by GYKM | editO, The Oprah Magazine
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I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve.
Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.
Love is everything. And I think that we all use whatever is in our power, whatever is within our reach, to attempt to keep alive the love we've felt.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0676976131, Paperback)

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi’s uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that’s tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock ’n’ roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through “drugs and imagination.” Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi’s first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Within the present, Nomi goes through the motions of finishing high school while flagrantly rebelling against Mennonite tradition. She hangs out on Suicide Hill, hooks up with a boy named Travis, goes on the Pill, wanders around town, skips class and cranks Led Zeppelin. But the past is never far from her mind as she remembers happy times with her mother and sister — as well as the painful events that led them to flee town. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Eventually Nomi’s grief — and a growing sense of hypocrisy — cause her to spiral ever downward to a climax that seems at once startling and inevitable. But even when one more loss is heaped on her piles of losses, Nomi maintains hope and finds the imagination and willingness to envision what lies beyond.

Few novels in recent years have generated as much excitement as A Complicated Kindness. Winner of the Governor General’s Award and a Giller Prize Finalist, Miriam Toews’s third novel has earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists. In the Globe and Mail, author Bill Richardson writes the following: “There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to care, okay, comes to love.”

This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . .

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
—from A Complicated Kindness

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:48 -0400)

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In a small Mennonite town in southern Manitoba, teenager Nomi Nickel tries to find out the truth behind her mother's and sister's disappearances, and ultimately finds herself in conflict with her religious uncle and her community.

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