Thursday, 8 September 2016

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

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This was a reread, but it had been many years since I'd last read A Complicated Kindness. When I sat down with it again, I remembered that I'd thought it was great, but not many of the details why. It didn't take long. About three pages in, there was a line that nearly took my breath away, the main character measuring how long it's been since she last saw her mother by how many times she's had her period. The idea is powerful, the way it was phrased utterly heartbreaking.

Much of the book is like that - Nomi, the main character, is not given to flowery language. It's often stark and straighforward, as though her life is only possible to deal with when presented in short, brutal spurts. 

She lives with her father in a small Manitoba Mennonite town. It isn't Old Order Mennonite, although her uncle has been tightening the restrictions on what people can and cannot do. Nomi's sister and mother are both missing, or so we know at the start of the story. The stories of why they left and what might have happened are only slowly revealed.

Nomi's father, Ray, is loving and devout, struggling as much as Nomi is with the absence of his wife and older daughter. The two pass by each other as Nomi goes to her last year or so of school before inevitably, she figures, starting work at the chicken processing plant down the road. That is the life she sees before her, with a past almost too painful to contemplate, and so she spends a lot of time getting high and spending time with her boyfriend, pushing the limits of being a teenager in a Mennonite town, even when teenagers are expected to act out before settling down.

This probably sounds more dour than it is. There are moments of surprising humour, many lines that are utterly heartbreaking. How and why this family fell apart is paced out perfectly.

Reading this not long after Housekeeping made it even more striking, I think, these books that both centre around a home where the defining feature is absence. Nomi and her father are almost as bad at housework as the aunt in Housekeeping, with Nomi making alphabetical suppers that neither eat, and Ray selling pieces of the furniture at, it seems, random.

There isn't any psychoanalyzing in this book. It is presented as a life as it is lived, and is more powerful for its refusal to try to pathologize or even to let the readers too close to the characters. Yet, it's done so skilfully that you love the characters anyway, understand why they do what they do, if not necessarily who they are. They make questionable decisions, but you understand and empathize with every single one. 

Much of this book is rooted in the mundane, and the heartbreak of the mundane. The ways in which is imprisons and confines, with glimpses of a larger world which may not be freeing, but would not bind tight in exactly this way. The impact of religion is woven through, part of the strictures of the town that bent this family to the breaking point. 

It's a powerful book, and I was moved by nearly every page, amused by many of them, and feeling at the end that there were many complicated kindnesses going on. I highly recommend this one for everyone.

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