Book Review: A Complicated coming-of-age

An integral element of any coming-of-age novel is the repressive situation against which the angst-ridden protagonist rebels. For Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar it was societal pressures for her to be a proper woman. For J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield it was pretty much everything. Nomi Nickel, the heroine in Miriam Toews’ celebrated novel A Complicated Kindness, now available in paperback, struggles with her Mennonite community in southern Manitoba.


“This town is so severe. And silent,” she remarks. “It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. There’s an invisible hand that exerts a steady pressure on our words like a hand to an open, spurting wound. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of anger.”


In A Complicated Kindness Toews masterfully compiles and creates the narrative of Nomi, a 16 year-old Mennonite girl who dreams of Lou Reed and New York City. The tale revolves around Nomi’s attempts to maintain sanity in her community while she and her father, Ray, come to terms with the absences of her sister Tash and mother Trudie. Stuck in a helpless situation, Nomi soon indulges in small acts of defiance–she takes up smoking, drugs and alcohol, she has her first boyfriend, and she skips school. As the reasons behind her mother’s and sister’s disappearances become more clear, Nomi’s rebellion goes too far, leading to the novel’s inevitably bittersweet ending.


As all great coming-of-age novels do, A Complicated Kindness carefully balances the humour with the heartache. Nomi’s portrayals of her missing family members are full of laughter and sorrow. Trudie starts off as a witty, sassy, fun-loving mother, but she gradually comes undone and begins losing touch with reality while Tash is originally described as a smart, sarcastic older sister, before later becoming mean and detached. Toews contrasts Nomi’s humourous sketches of family members and townsfolk with the touching scenes where she visits her friend Lydia in the hospital.


One day, Nomi’s teacher asks her to write a story with a triggering point, a climax and a resolution. In her own narrative, she finds her triggering point in her mother and sister. Going back and forth through time and sifting through memories of Trudie and Tash, whether good or bad, provides Nomi with some comfort and something to hold onto. In addition to her rebellion, it’s all she can do to avoid a dull future working in a chicken abattoir.


This constant shift between past and present is one problem readers may have with the novel. Toews can be accused of going off into too many directions, however, Nomi’s wavering narrative is completely definitive of her character’s uncertain fragility. The book would fail utterly if written in a linear, third person format without the direct thoughts and feelings of its protagonist.


One year after its release A Complicated Kindness has racked in a number of accolades, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. This praise pours over the book and clings like thick sugary syrup, and rightfully so. Toews creates such a terribly funny and, at the same time, devastatingly sad character in Nomi resulting in not only a perfect example of the coming-of-age story done right but also a story capable of propelling itself right into the heart of outstanding Canadian prose.

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