Miriam Toews’ funny but heart-breaking novel ‘a complicated kindness,’ features the Mennonite church and community. It portrays Manitoban families in the fictitious East Village, cut off from a city that is only 40 miles away and ministered by the fiercely pious and overly-zealous Hans. Toews, herself a Manitoban of Mennonite descent, paints a picture of the Mennonite church as one which prepares its flock for life after death by stifling the life out of its followers' earthly existence.
The protagonist, Nomi Nickel, 16, is lost within the folds of silence in her family and her community. At the beginning of her story, Nomi informs the reader that half of her family, the better-looking half, is missing. As she unravels their story, layer by layer, with a wry sense of humor and sharpness that exemplifies the gift of adolescence, you cannot help but smile, even as you feel her pain. Her dad, Ray, has his heart in the right place but finds himself stunted in his ability to be himself, to be a modern-day father and a strong husband. Yet Nomi does not love him any less on account of his shortcomings. In fact, she goes as far as taking over the responsibility of being the rock in the now two-member family. Or so she thinks. Ray, on the other hand, sees clearly what is best for his daughter, despite not knowing how to help her or even himself.
The contradictions between the lifestyle that is expected in this village (duly showcased in the museum for the benefit of American tourists) and the lifestyle that is a reality among some teens are mind-boggling. Consider this passage:
We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, 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 called Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing…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, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.So East Village, on the outset, appears to be a success from Menno’s point of view. Even well-stocked libraries are banned, as in all societies governed and manipulated in a top-down manner. However, a closer inspection reveals that bored (or bewildered) teen-agers in Manitoba’s East Village may be no different from those presumed to inhabit New York City’s East Village. They wander about the streets in the night, have sex out of boredom, drink and do drugs and sometimes self-destruct in very direct and more efficient ways than you would think is humanly possible in picture-perfect societies.
Toews' writing style, employing no quotation marks, even when she is writing direct speech, throws you off a little in the beginning but you get used to it very quickly. There are scenes and passages, especially in the middle of the book, where the book seems to drag. Had Toews cut the novel by 30 or 40 pages, the story would not have suffered even a tiny bit. But despite that minor weakness, the book is well worth a read.
An excerpt of ‘a complicated kindness.’
An author interview.