Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Complicated Kindness

Canadian Miriam Toews wrote a phenomenal novel a few years back called A Complicated Kindness which my wife and I finally just read this month. After Life of Pi this is the second hugely remarkable Canadian work of fiction I've read in the last while, and I'm beginning to think I've found a new place to go for good reading---right in my own backyard.

Some of the reviews on the book jacket call it "exquisitely written" and a "masterpiece". I can't disagree. I thought maybe the New Brunswick Reader was exaggerating calling the main character "Canada's answer to Holden Caufield," but now I'm not so sure. If you read Catcher in the Rye you know that's high praise indeed. But it fits. The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed and rightly praised this "wonderful little book because it reminds us of the beauty and meaning in one small moment of one small life."

Nomi Nickel is the novel's protagonist and the whole story is told by her, including all the dialogue, which is often written without quotation marks because it is as if she is in the room telling it to you in one breath from her own lips. The story-telling is not very linear and gives everything from one teenager's perspective, which gives it a unique style that may take a while to get into. But as with Catcher in the Rye the result is that the reader is engrossed in the character's world and really begins to understand.

This novel raises eyebrows on another level since the plot revolves entirely around the life-sapping, stifling strictness of a small prairie Mennonite town. Though the "complicated kindness" of some of the characters does shine through, the indictment on some of our evangelical strains is pretty stark. All the more reason for evangelicals to read it, though, in my opinion. Empathy and self-awareness are good things.

I'm not sure I fully appreciated this novel until I put it down. Though I normally enjoy different writing styles and non-linear story telling (more in movies than books), I wasn't sure I was following the way I was supposed to all the time. My wife would ask where are you in the story? and I'd respond what do you mean where am I, nothing is really happening in real time. (By the way that last sentence was Miriam Toews-esque). But the beauty of it is that over time the picture of what has indeed happened does emerge clearly, and in the meantime you have entered Nomi Nickel's world to such an extent that there will be sadness on losing her.

Here are a couple random excerpts to leave you with a bit of the flavour:

"Lydia was lying on a bed that had two mattresses on it instead of one because just one was too hard for her bones. Its a beautiful day, said the nurse, and a young healthy girl like Lydia should be outside in the fresh air. . . . Lydia opened her eyes and smiled and nodded and then closed them again. The nurse sighed. I would kill her on my way out of the hospital. My friendship with Lids was often about protection. Or it was a shared desperation. Or it was about recognizing the familiar flickering embers of each other's dying souls" (p. 33).

"My dad gazed into the neighbour's yard. Looks like the little girl's got herself a new two-wheeler, he said. We say bicycle now, Dad, I said. Or, sometimes, bike. He . . . took the pant clip off his leg and saluted me before going into the house. I had never seen him salute before. Were we saluting now? Was this some new playful thing we were doing now? God, Ray deserves a better daughter than me. He deserves Laura Ingalls Wilder saluting him back exuberantly, clicking her heels even, and saying oh, Father, and gazing at him the way a daughter should. I took the chalk and wrote in tiny, tiny letters on the driveway: Dad, don't think I'm not saluting you when I'm not saluting you" (p. 73).

I highly recommend this book. I don't know if I've ever done this before but I'm thinking about turning back to the first page again and reading it again right away. I think I'm adding it to my "great fiction" list (on the right sidebar along with another recent add-in, Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill).


Tarasview said...

huh. just goes to show how different we all are! I REALLY didn't like this book. I found it disjointed and the ending entirely unsatisfactory.

go figure :)

jon said...

no doubt it was dis jointed. i didn't like that at first but by the end i was sold.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Yeah, I love this novel. I read it twice too.

nathan davies said...

jodi loved this novel. as far as canadian authors go, your next stop should be michael ondaajte. you won't regret it.
gls in 2 weeks.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Ah, you see I was going to say that your next canadian author should be robertson davies. His Deptford trilogy remains one of the best written pieces I've come across. I'll have to make some time for Ms. Toews soon.

dags said...

i'll look for this book...always looking for something interesting to read...thanks! and ya, i loved Life of Pi too...