Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews

The Basics: A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews, 2004, 246 pages, paperback, winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction, nominated for the Giller Prize, champion of the CBC's Canada Reads 2006.

How I found it: Despite all the acclaim this book has received, I don't remember hearing about it. I picked it up in our local used bookstore because it had the GG nomination sticker on it.

What's it about?: A teenage girl growing up in a small Manitoba farming community that is dominated by the ultra-conservative Mennonite church. Like most of the Canadian novels I have read recently, this one also involves a very troubled family. The protagonist, Nomi, is caught between the old ways of community and the pull of the modern world. Toews is said to have based the book upon her own coming of age in 1970s Steinbach, Manitoba (which I visited last summer and went to the Mennonite Heritage Village).

Did I like it?: As a novel, I like the book. It was well written in an interesting and youthful style and I found myself relating to Nomi, despite her immaturity. However, I did have a few problems with the book. It depicts a very conservative, regimented and fundamentalist society of Mennonites who participate in shunnings and excommunications. I had a hard time reconciling this portrayal with the Mennonites that I know who are some the best, most caring and selfless people. They are much more moderate and modern than what is depicted in Toews' novel, but I suppose times have changed. I would be interested to see a moderate Mennonite review this book.

Will you like it?: It is a difficult and heart-wrenching book to read, but that is what makes it good. It's critical recognition is well-deserved. I liked it, and I think you will too, but I will offer one disclaimer: it was both a Heather's pick (Chapters) and picked by O, Oprah's magazine. I generally am not a fan of those types of books, but I did like this one even though I kept waiting for the revelation (that thankfully never came) that one of the characters had been molested. It's that kind of Color Purple/Wally Lamb/book club-style book.

But don't take my word for it: Readers on Amazon.ca seem to think it's boring, critics love it, a reviewer on popmatters.com seems to like it.

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