Miriam Teows’ A Complicated Kindness

Rating: 4.7/5.0

Earlier this Spring I began reading A Complicated Kindness by renowned Canadian author, Miriam Teows. This book, at first, was a dry read; I could not commit. Still, I know the value of seeing a book to the end, and so I held on. About 110 pages in, that payoff began. I started to feel a kinship with the main character, Nomi Nickel, an understanding that often life can just be a straight line to nowhere when you feel trapped and devoid of options.

Set in the Mennonite town of East Village in Ontario, on the border with the United States, Teows paints the picture of a bleak and exhausted town with not much to go on but the constant threat of eternal damnation. Nomi is a rebellious and pondering teenager on the brink of graduating high school, if she can just get a final paper written to the satisfaction of her teacher. Plagued by the abandonment by her mother and older sister, and the responsibility of caring for her father, Nomi wanders around town playing out the internal dialogue of her mind. With several short and clipped sentences, Teows admits us into the corners of Nomi’s mind where her pain and curiosity, her harsh realizations and kinder self reside. Nomi is not a character prone to over-exaggeration, and truly there is nothing about this book that reverts to the dramatic. Teows presents the reader with the bare bones of life in a Mennonite village, and one could elucidate that this is a book taken from  a few chapters of Teows’ own life growing up in a Mennonite town.

Nomi stumbles aimlessly through her days in her quiet village where people are brimming with frustration and anxiety at being denied and limited in their living. We see the slow disintegration of her family, juxtaposed with her developing self identity despite the losses that accumulate in her life.

Teows is very sensitive in her construction of Nomi’s thoughts, concerns, fears and valuables in life. Nomi is just a regular girl in need of a family she can rely on, and with whom she can share her love. This girl may be perceived as devoid of emotion and unable to get her act together, but the love within her comes through in her defense of her best friend, Lids, in her compassion toward the little neighbour girl whose little whims she is forever indulging in just to make happy, in her ability to see her mother and sister as still parts of her and forgive them for abandoning her, and in her unconditional, unwavering and soft love for her father. Her strength peeks through in her ability to let go of the wrongs heaved at her by various people in the town, and despite the tumult inside her, to hold steady and still find a way to take care of herself. This is not just a coming-of-age story as it has been hailed since it made its debut in 2004, but this story settles its heels into what it means to be human. It explores our desires and fears, our weaknesses and strengths, the things that can break us and the love that helps us stand up again. It is a compassionate portrait of a young girl brave enough to build a hope out of an inferno of lost innocence.

And again, like a lot of books I review, I would say this is one for your reading line-up, because truly, Miriam Teows is brilliant.


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