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A Complicated Kindness

Cover of A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

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Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City's East Village. Instead she's trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: "the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager." East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi's uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that's tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock 'n' roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o'clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through "drugs and imagination." Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi's first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award and a Giller Prize finalist, A Complicated Kindness earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists.

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City's East Village. Instead she's trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: "the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager." East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered with an iron fist by Nomi's uncle Hans, a.k.a. The Mouth of Darkness, East Village is a town that's tall on rules and short on fun: no dancing, drinking, rock 'n' roll, recreational sex, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities or staying up past nine o'clock.

As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister, and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. She lives with her father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi favours chaos as she tries to blunt her pain through "drugs and imagination." Together they live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

Nomi's first person narrative shifts effortlessly between the present and the past. Throughout, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable, she offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love.

Winner of the Governor General's Literary Award and a Giller Prize finalist, A Complicated Kindness earned both critical acclaim and a long and steady position on our national bestseller lists.

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Awards-
Excerpts-
  • Chapter One One

    I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

    Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it's time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o'clock Ray tells me that he's hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he'll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He's always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring's opinions, probably because he's also a teacher.

    I have assignments to complete. That's the word, complete. I've got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer's control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don't know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I'm already anticipating failure. That much I've learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I'm snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I'm sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

    One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You'd know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he's got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that's no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn't been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she'd said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She'd given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don't know exactly what we were doing at Carson's place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn't started out that way I'm pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he'd yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don't make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he'd unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson's little mittened hand and slapped it...
About the Author-
  • Miriam Toews (pronounced tâves) was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She left Steinbach at 18, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before coming back to Manitoba, where she earned her B.A. in film studies at the University of Manitoba. Later she packed up with her children and partner and moved to Halifax to attend the University of King's College, where she received her bachelor's degree in journalism. Upon returning to Winnipeg with her family in 1991, she freelanced at the CBC, making radio documentaries. When her youngest daughter started nursery school, Toews decided it was time to try writing a novel.

    Miriam Toews's first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, was published in 1996; it was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and won the John Hirsch Award. Published two years later, her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. She is also the author of Swing Low: A Life, a memoir of her father who committed suicide in 1998 after a lifelong struggle with manic depression. Swing Low won both the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award and the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction. Toews has written for the CBC, This American Life (on National Public Radio), Saturday Night, Geist, Canadian Geographic, Open Letters and The New York Times Magazine, and has won the National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Humour.

    Toews's third novel, A Complicated Kindness, has been called "a black humour grenade, dealing a devastating explosion of gut-busting laughs alongside heart-wrenching sorrow." The Globe and Mail quotes Toews as saying: "Sometimes I am bugged by my own tendency to continuously go for the laughs, but I am trying to be genuinely funny even if it's in a dry, tragic way. I don't know if there is a Mennonite type of humour, but growing up with my dad, from day one I felt it was my job to make him laugh." The memory of her father has influenced Toews's fiction in another profound way: "Loss inspired the story, loss with no answers. I think I needed to put that on Nomi. She was going to be the person who would take me through the process of dealing with loss and wondering where those people went." She adds: "I have seen the damage that fundamentalism can do. The way the religion is being interpreted, it's a culture of control and that emphasis on shame and punishment and guilt is not conducive to robust mental health." Though she no longer attends a Mennonite church, Toews says that she still considers herself a Mennonite. And despite the novel's exploration of the destructive elements of life in a small religious community, she says: "I hope that people will recognize that there are aspects of it that I really love and really miss."

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 19, 2004
    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. Agent, Knopf Canada.
    Author tour.

  • The Believer "Miriam Toews, the award winning Canadian author, embodies Nomi's voice with such an authentic and manic charm that it's hard not to fall in love with her... A Complicated Kindness captures the struggles of a family and its individuals in a fresh, wondrous style. Despite this complexity of family tensions, much of A Complicated Kindness is pleasantly plotless. The looseness of Nomi's worldview, the sometimes blurry nonfocus of it, the unexpected sideways humor, make this book the beautiful and bitter little masterpiece it is."
  • Publishers Weekly "Poignant....Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both."
  • Globe and Mail Books section cover "Wise, edgy, unforgettable, the heroine of Miriam Toews's knockout novel is Canada's next classic."
  • Gail Anderson-Dargatz "A Complicated Kindness is just that: funny and strange, spellbinding and heartbreaking, this novel is a complicated kindness from a terrifically talented writer."
  • The Globe and Mail "Why the compulsion to laugh so often and so heartily when reading A Complicated Kindness? That's the book's mystery and its miracle. Has any of our novelists ever married, so brilliantly, the funny -- and I mean posture-damaging, shoulder-heaving, threaten- the- grip- of- gravity- on- recently- ingested- food brand of funny -- and the desperately sad --that would be the three-ply- tissue, insufficient- to- the- day, who- knew- I- had- this- much- snot- in- me brand of sad? I don't think so."
  • Quill & Quire "Right away we're hooked on our narrator's [Nomi's] mournful smarts....A Complicated Kindness is affecting, impeccably written, and has real authority, but most of all it is immediate. You -- as they say -- are there....like waking up in a crazy Bible camp, or witnessing an adolescent tour guide tear off her uniform and make a break for the highway."
  • Jennifer Wells, Toronto Star "...knockout novel. ...There's leave-taking in this book. But there's wholeness, too. It is a joy."
  • Leslie Beaton Hedley, Calgary Herald "Now comes A Complicated Kindness, in which Toews' deft hand combines aspects of her previous subjects -- love, small-town politics, rigid religious parameters, depression, -- and comes up with something completely new."
  • Pat Donnelly, The Gazette (Montreal) "A Complicated Kindness struck me like a blow to the solar plexus. Toews, somewhat like Mordecai Richler, makes you feel the pain of her protagonist while elucidating the predicament of her people, always mixing a large dose of empathy with her iconoclastic sense of the ridiculous. When she's funny, she's wickedly so. But the book has a dark, disturbing side to it that grows stronger as the story progresses."
  • The London Free Press "In novel full of original characters...Toews has created a feisty but appealing young heroine.... As an indictument against religious fundamentalism, A Complicated Kindness is timely. As a commentary on character it is fresh and inventive, and as storytelling it is first rate."
  • Fast Forward Weekly (Calgary) "Toew's offers up a wickedly funny new voice.... Nomi is wickedly funny, irreverent, intelligent and compassionate. Toews masteres the character's voice and never allows her own to intrude."
  • Georgia Straight "A Complicated Kindness works its way up to a powerful ending through the accumulation of anecdote and detail.... Toew's sense of the absurd works brilliantly to expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist kindness, a love in reality all too conditional.... A Complicated Kindness, at its core, is a depiction of the battle between hope and despair ... yet along the way we are treated to an unforgettable summer with a heroine who loses everything but it s ultimately able to hold on to life, to a sense of herself, and to maintain her courage and optimism In the face of a world without any guaranteed happy endings."
  • The Bookseller (mcnallyrobinson.com) "A Complicated Kindness...looks like a breakthrough.... It is narrated by a deastating ly funny and heartbreakingly bewildered young woman named Nomi."
  • Saturday's Guardian (UK) "The narrative voice is so strong, it could carry the last eventful, least weird adolescence in the world and still be as transfixing.... Toew's
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Miriam Toews
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