Reviews

A Complicated Kindness

RICHARD VAN CAMP

Nomi Nickel, the heroine of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (Knopf), is a bad girl. How can she help it? She is a healthy teenager in a tiny, claustrophobic Mennonite town run by 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, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock.” To make matters worse, the main enforcer here in East Village (as Toews has slyly named the town) is Nomi’s Uncle Hans. Nomi lives with her father, a passive and vaguely disappointed but devout man, and she longs for something to happen. Something other than to grow up, go to work at the chicken abattoir just outside of town and marry someone she’s known all her life. The reader can be pretty sure what that something will be—and not just because of the tantalizing cover copy, which refers to a “startling act of defiance.” Nomi’s mother and sister have already vanished, and Nomi’s poignant catalogue of her mom’s qualities (“She liked a made bed . . . She drove too fast . . . She loved the girliness of my dad’s eyelashes . . . She spoke to strangers whenever she had the opportunity to”) makes it pretty clear that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Nomi too will have to be thrown out of the community. Good thing Toews is such a fabulous, funny writer. In her hands Nomi is doubtful but not cynical, sassy but not coy, vulnerable but not pathetic. Here is a writer not afraid to present sentences like “After school I went home and had a nap,” a writer whose prose is free of description, exposition and stage directions: “When Tash was four and I was a fat baby, she threw herself out of a tree and broke her elbow in two places.” Everything is revealed in the narrative, which sings along like cool, sweet running water.

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RICHARD VAN CAMP

Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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