Review of “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews

Nomi Nickel is a rebellious 16-year-old in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada. Her mother and older sister both are missing (we don’t find out why until the end), and now she lives only with her somewhat disconnected dad Ray. Nomi doesn’t have much to look forward to except a job at a chicken slaughtering farm, and feels trapped as well by the ultraconservative religious strictures of her life. There is supposed to be no makeup, tattooing, sex, dancing, smoking, drugs, or rock-and-roll, although these taboos don’t stop Nomi. She has a boyfriend, Travis, but they don’t connect much except physically. And even that doesn’t seem very rewarding. The story, basically a stream of consciousness, a digressive monologue by Nomi, has been compared to Catcher In The Rye, with Nomi as a female Holden Caulfield. To me, Nomi seems also a bit like a non-pregnant Juno, the independent-minded character from the 2008 Oscar-winning screenplay by Diablo Cody.

Evaluation: Miriam Toews (pronounced Taves) does a great job of presenting us with the mind of a disaffected teenager, but really, do you want to hang out with one of those for a whole book? And actually I found the book quite depressing (even though some of it was darkly funny), because Nomi seemed to be on the edge of a breakdown, not a bit surprising given the destructive influence of her overly punitive community. And, like any teenager, a lot of her complaints, while well founded, were very repetitive. After a while, I wanted to escape Nomi and her life as much as Nomi did!

But don’t just listen to me! This book won the 2004 [Canadian] Governor General’s Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, Canada’s largest literary prize for fiction.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2004

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19 Responses to Review of “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews

  1. Nymeth says:

    I appreciate the pronunciation tip, as it turns out I’ve been her name wrong in my head all along 😛 Hm, I do like Holden and Juno… I wonder if I’d have more luck than you did with this one.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    OF COURSE it won an award. Isn’t that the way? I liked Juno. I thought she was a little angsty but in a cool way. I wouldn’t mind hanging with her for an entire book. Not sure about this bird. I can understand the rebellion totally, but with less whining.

  3. I love disaffected teenagers (only in books though–definitely not in real life!) but they can get irritating after awhile. I do want to read something by this author.

  4. Vasilly says:

    I don’t mind a complaining teenager but one who constantly complains. . . I’m not having it. Since our taste in books is similar, I’ll pass this up.

  5. BermudaOnion says:

    I have to be in the right mood to tackle a book like that and I don’t think I am right now.

  6. zibilee says:

    While the plot of this one sounds rather interesting to me, I would totally get annoyed with all the whiny angst that takes places between the pages. We have so much of that at home right now that it seems silly to expose myself to it in the books that I read. Perhaps at another time this book might be more appealing, but for right now, I think I will skip it.

  7. I think I might struggle with a book like this as well, even though the subject draws me in (what with her being in a small Mennonite community and all – that fascinates me immediately). I might still put it on the TBR, but may not be so motivated to jump into right away. Like Nymeth, I also loved Holden Caulfield and Juno, so it might work for me, but you never know!

  8. while I liked Juno…and Catcher in the Rye…this does sounds rather depressing.

  9. litlove says:

    I haven’t read this one by her, but I have read The Flying Troutmans. I found it funny and quite appealing, although there was still a great deal of fascination around disaffected teenagers. They were on a road trip, though, which did become a source of some claustrophobia for me (they barely get out of the car). However, given that I do have a whining 17-year-old of my own, I can promise that the characters in the book I read were MUCH funnier and more creative than the real thing!

  10. softdrink says:

    Wait…it’s not Tews?!? I don’t know if my brain can process that.

  11. Julie P. says:

    Oh no. I’m so sorry this one didn’t work for you.

  12. Jenners says:

    I could see that this might not be a character one wants to spend time with.

  13. raidergirl3 says:

    Now I completely agree with you about this book. Too depressing- it’s the kind of book that makes the stereotypical depressing Canadian novel.
    I preferred her A Boy of Good Breeding; much quirkier.

  14. I was not impressed by this one either….

  15. Margot says:

    It does sound a little depressing. I loved Juno, the movie, but primarily because of the supporting cast. Sorry about the book, but thanks for reminding me about the movie.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    As soon as you said a female Holden Caulfield I knew that I was not going to read this one!

  17. Alyce says:

    Why is it that award-winning books tend to be overwhelmingly depressing (either that or terribly tragic)? Sorry this one wasn’t a hit for you.

  18. A book on teenage angst could be interesting though depressing.

  19. Carrie says:

    I tried getting into the book, but couldn’t.

    I’m an American currently living in this small Manitoba community that Toews is from (and yes, it is pronounced Tayves) and writes about. And I want to escape from this area, too. I don’t think I could read about it and live it. 😉

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