Those of us who felt oppressed as teenagers can easily recall how any act of rule-bending, whether it was puffing a cigarette or starting an ill-advised romance, could seem an enormous yet thrilling risk of outsized proportions. For Nomi Nickel, the sixteen-year-old heroine of A Complicated Kindness, these same risks are anything but outsized. A teenager and small-town Mennonite, Nomi is barred from makeup, sex, dancing, smoking, rock-and-roll; even fantasizing about a life in Montreal or New York City—places where, presumably, such temptations exist in unavoidable abundance—is to risk being shunned by her family and neighbors. Miriam Toews (pronounced Taves), the award-winning Canadian author of three earlier books, embodies Nomi’s voice with such an authentic and manic charm that it’s hard not to fall in love with her, this young woman who can only wonder what it’s like to be one of the Americans who come to her Manitoba town to gawk at “the world’s most non-progressive community.”
Told in short, sharp vignettes that are ordered in a nonlinear yet drivingly narrative fashion, the details of Nomi, her loyal father, and her excommunicated sister and mother, come into heartbreaking focus as the book careens through its course like a drug haze (the Mennonites, turns out, have drug dealers, too). Nomi’s voice is self-mocking and searching and laced with hilarious teenage logics. For example: when she meets her future boyfriend, Travis, she decides she wants to be his girlfriend after he mentions Lou Reed in their first conversation. During this same meeting, Nomi tries to adopt a mysterious facade: “I’d been going after that laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside look for a while. It all had to do with the eyes and the mouth and certain pauses in your speech.” In another scene, she and Travis argue over the best way to look good riding a bike:
I made Travis promise me that he would never become the type of person who tucked his pant leg into his sock while riding a bike and he said I was superficial but he knew what I meant. He said he’d take off his pants and ride around in his underwear first.
Where would you put your pants, I asked. You’re not gonna have a carrier!
What’s wrong with a carrier, he asked and I said no, no carriers. Carriers are for little kids.
Well, then he said he’d get a clip for his pant leg and I said no, no clips, and he said my bike etiquette was extreme.
As the emotional stakes increase for Nomi—an outsider among a group that society at large sees as outsiders—she comes to better understand her mother and sister’s shunning, especially since her own reckless behavior and smartass attitude threaten to send her down the same path. By the book’s conclusion, Nomi is illicitly dreaming more and more of an independent future. Her father, a conflicted but likable character, seems resigned to her destiny. 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 that it is.