On first glance a more suitable title for this would be A Simple Unkindness. There isn’t much kindness about in the Mennonite community in which this book is set. Drugs and boredom? Check. Random violence? Check. “Ghost people” who are allowed to live among the saved, but who are not allowed to mix with them? Check. The terror of a charismatic leader, swinging the threat of excommunication around like a weapon? Check.
Toews’ biography of her father, Swing Low, portrayed a community that was constrained, but ultimately benign in intention. But the portrayal of the Mennonite community in A Complicated Kindness, seen through the eyes of disturbed sixteen year old Nomi, is much darker.
Nomi has every right to feel dark and disturbed. She and her older sister Tash experience a happy childhood of sisterly companionship, with loving parents who are devoted to each other. Their mother Trudie is a glittering character, unconventional, rebellious, exciting. Their father Ray is more passive and accepting of the teachings of the Church, but also touchingly indulgent towards his wife’s idiosyncracies.
But as she grows up, Tash finds it harder to fulfil the role of dutiful Mennonite daughter. This in turn brings out Trudie’s own unhappiness. Eventually, first Tash elopes, and then Trudie leaves the family home, for destination unknown.
The first two chapters of the book are very striking and worth a read for sure if you are looking to study how effective openings work. The atmosphere is repressive, Nomi is simmering and sullen, the images of the departed Trudie aching with brilliance,
After that, the pace of the book settles down. Although Nomi’s voice is engaging, there’s an inherent problem in setting your book in a community whose main feature is mind-stultifying boredom. Toews keeps things going with some funny observations, such as the revelation that the teenage girl employed by the tourist centre to hang around in traditional garb once brought knuckle dusters to school to settle an argument. There are some touching teenage observations. If you are looking for something plot driven, then this is not going to be for you.
However, it all builds towards an effective ending. The complicated kindness, I think, refers to the family’s internal dynamics. How to balance one’s own personal desires against the implacability of a force much bigger than one’s own self?
It’s an extreme thing to do, to leave one’s family. An even more extreme one to leave one’s child. But I did understand the family’s logic in the end as to why it had to be this way, especially when Nomi’s love of her absent mother shines through all her anger towards the Church. It reminded me a bit of Toews’ attitude towards her father in Swing Low.
Reading this novel made me think over many different issues, some to do with family, some to do with spirituality and organised religion. It reminded me of the struggles all parents have as their children grown up and diverge in ambitions and desires. At one point, Trudie cries out to Ray that she is “losing” Tash, which is exactly the same phrase that one of my friends used to me once when describing how she felt about her growing daughter.
It also reminded me of how cringe makingly naive I was when I was twenty one, projecting forwards on my ideas of what my bright shiny family life was going to be like: I’d just emerged fresh from traumatic teendom, ergo I knew all about the pitfalls of parenthood and this equipped me to be the perfect parent. And just wait until my child hit her own teens! I was going to be the best mum ever! Every so often, or even more frequently than that, I do come out with a loada crap and this was clearly one of those days. Ah, well.
The thing that stood out for me though was the way that Tash and Trudie’s struggles were so similar to each other, yet ultimately drove them apart rather than bringing them together. Being similar to one another does not necessarily mean that you can understand each other, and in fact can just lead to deadlock. I did wonder throughout the book why the family had not left the town, and I think this will be something that occurs to most people as they read it. But at the end I realised that each member of the family had to come to their own decision about their destiny, and that they had to make these decisions alone. Just as we all do.