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A Complicated Kindness: A Novel Paperback – September 6, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A 16-year-old rebels against the conventions of her strict Mennonite community and tries to come to terms with the collapse of her family in this insightful, irreverent coming-of-age novel. In bleak rural Manitoba, Nomi longs for her older sister, Tash ("she was so earmarked for damnation it wasn't even funny"), and mother, Trudie, each of whom has recently fled fundamentalist Christianity and their town. Her gentle, uncommunicative father, Ray, isn't much of a sounding board as Nomi plunges into bittersweet memory and grapples with teenage life in a "kind of a cult with pretend connections to some normal earthly conventions." Once a "curious, hopeful child" Nomi now relies on biting humor as her life spins out of control—she stops attending school, shaves her head and wanders around in a marijuana-induced haze—while Ray sells off most of their furniture, escapes on all-night drives and increasingly withdraws into himself. Still, she and Ray are linked in a tender, if fragile, partnership as each slips into despair. Though the narration occasionally unravels into distracting stream of consciousness, the unsentimental prose and the poignant character interactions sustain reader interest. Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nichol is a Mennonite, which, she wryly observes, "is the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager." Because Mennonites shun modern ways, Nomi's repressively fundamentalist community on the plains of Manitoba is a tourist attraction for Americans searching "for a glimpse backwards in time." Half of Nomi's family, "the better-looking half" as she puts it, is missing. Her older sister has fled the stifling strictures of their hometown, while her mother has also vanished after having been excommunicated by her own brother, the local minister, whom Nomi dubs "The Mouth of Darkness." That leaves the 16-year-old to look after her gentle, bewildered father and to deal with her own loneliness and persistent memories of how her family came undone. For Nomi, coping becomes an exercise in increasingly rebellious, sometimes self-destructive behavior, punctuated by pot-fuelled fantasies of escaping to New York to become a roadie for Lou Reed. Canadian author Toews, who grew up in a similar community, raises a number of fascinating, beautifully dramatized questions about the toll unquestioning faith can take on the human spirit. Her episodic, highly introspective first novel--part of an emerging subgenre of crossover adult books that might have been published as YA--maintains a careful balance between hilarity and heartbreak that most readers will find unforgettable. Michael Cart
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint (August 17, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582433224
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582433226
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #517,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Sarah McIntyre on October 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I found this book fascinating. On first reading, this book seemed to be one teenager's long downward spiral into depression, interspersed with a few beautiful or humorous moments. But a shadowy glimpse of a some more complex themes drew me back to it for a second reading, where I was delighted to find the writing tight and full of well-chosen imagery and recurring themes.

The narrator, Nomi, writes near the beginning: "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."

Nomi chafes against the inflexibility and lack of forgiveness in many members of her religious community, but as she struggles to understand the undercurrents which have driven her mother and elder sister into the void beyond the town, she begins to be able to tap into the honesty of her family to imagine something bigger and better than the only place she knows. "I have a problem with endings," she writes, and she cannot satisfy her English teacher by drawing her essays to a neat close. In the same way, she can't seem to accept her pastor uncle's neat package of rigid definitions explaining her existence, with no mysteries or forgiveness for weakness. When a nurse at the hospital criticises her invalid friend Lydia for being so needy, Nomi objects 'But isn't that what a hosp...(ital is for?)" When the church throws out a man for being unable to overcome alcoholism, the reader wants to ask, "But isn't that what a church community is for?" Nomi has an innate sense that something is fundamentally wrong with her environment.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bruce J. Wasser on February 24, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"A Complicated Kindness" is a work of extreme adolescent alienation and unalloyed angst. No mere coming-of-age novel, its subject matter, a young woman's frustrated rage against the suffocating strictures of a small religious sect in an isolated rural Canadian community, is bound to upset its readers. Its author, Miriam Toews, has created a disenchanted, bewildered and embittered protagonist whose rebellion against her tightly-controlled environment rarely produces positive results. In fact, Nomi Nickel receives no solace, spiritual guidance or moral direction from her sequestered Mennonite community. The ironically named East Village is, to Nomi, death-in-life -- everywhere from its major industry, a slaughterhouse for chickens to its otherworldly preoccupation with damnation and the afterlife.

Against this repressive milieu, Nomi's mother and sister have fled precipitously, leaving her to fend for herself with her overmatched father. Her oldest sister, Tash, wantonly flouts convention, brazenly embracing a life-sytle that literally predetermines her excommunication from the church and town. More intriguing is the torment her mother, Trudie, experiences. Divided in loyalty between husband, family and faith, Trudie elects an understated subversion of Mennonite tyranny. Her inability to make decisions, her unspoken support of Tash's revolt and her agonizing ultimate decision to flee make her the quiet, invisible embodiment of discontent.

In the wake of their departure, Nomi and her befuddled father Ray make do poorly. The disappearance of the home's furniture eerily mirrors the absence of Trudie and Tash.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on July 1, 2006
Format: Paperback
People have compared the character of Nomi Nickel to Holden Caulfield, and it's easy to see why. "A Complicated Kindness" is a coming-of-age novel about a 16-year-old girl who lives in a strict Mennonite community. Nomi lives with her father, Ray: her mother and older sister ultimately abandoned their fundamentalist Christian town, leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves. The relationship between Nomi and Ray is very fragile: they're both spinning out of control in different directions and it's hard for them to maintain a connection with each other. It's very obvious to Nomi that her life is screwed up. She longs to flee the town and travel to a fabulous and exciting place like New York City, but she's not sure if she has what it takes to make it on her own in the "real" world. Nomi experiences many of the usual aches and pains associated with growing up, but she also must deal with a lot of family and religious issues.

I thought this was an interesting book. Sometimes Nomi's long-winded tangents were a bit overdone and distracting, but author Miriam Toews did an excellent job of telling this story from a young girl's point of view. There are a lot of different themes in this book, but I personally found the whole religious aspect extremely interesting. Nomi is moved by the extraordinary acts of kindness demonstrated by the people in her town, but those people are also quick to excommunicate people from the church if they display signs of weakness or behave in a way that is considered "sinful." Isn't a church supposed to practice forgiveness and acceptance? Based on my personal experience, that isn't always the case, and I was able to relate to Nomi's observations about the blatant hypocrisy in her community.
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