Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness.

Nomi Nickel lives with her Dad, Ray, in a Mennonite town somewhere in southern Manitoba. Nomi’s sister Tash left a space back, and after that, so did Nomi’s Mom, Trudie. A Complicated Kindness is the heartbreaking story of Nomi's "coming-of-age" without any of the trite sentimentality that normally accompanies such stories: she struggles to try to understand why her mother and her sister left, to figure out why her father keeps selling their furniture, to love her boyfriend, and she dreams of escaping—preferably to New York City.

The heartbreaking part is Nomi trying to make sense of the stifling nature of her small town, run by her uncle Hans—the leader of the church and hence of the local world as well. As she tells of the latest person to be excommunicated, and as she learns more about why her sister and mother left, the limiting fundamentalist strictures are harder and harder for Nomi to deal with.

Throughout it all—from the happiness that her boyfriend Travis occasionally offers, to the pathos of her Little Nell-like friend Lids, to the way she spins with her younger next door neighbour—Nomi is rendered by Toews’s deft hand as one of the most interesting and real teenagers I’ve ever encountered in a fictional world. Nomi’s first-person narration struck me as both wise beyond her years and yet eminently plausible as an interpretation of events by a sixteen-year-old. Toews’s commentary on the nature of a life circumscribed by fundamentalism is damning without ever being painful or overt: her light touch is just right. I got lost in this book: I might not want to live in East Village, but I enjoyed seeing it through Nomi’s eyes, even as I was saddened by it. I hope she meets Lou Reed one of these days.