Monday, June 18, 2007

Book Review: A Complicated Kindness

Author: Miriam Toews

It’s difficult to review this book. It’s about a Mennonite girl, Nomi, living in a Mennonite town. (In the book, “Mennonite” is always shortened to “Menno”. “Mennonites” are “Mennos”, a “Mennonite town” is a “Menno town”.) The girl is 16, and the book is written in the first person, and Toews does a good job of imitating the voice of a 16 year old girl. (From what I can tell.)

It’s difficult to review the book because it’s very good, and I didn’t like it. I’m not just saying that it’s good because it won awards—including the Governor General’s Literary Award, as the book proudly proclaims from the cover—I’m saying it’s good because I can tell that it’s good. Well, in my judgement, anyway. I can say with authority that I don’t like it because I don’t like it.

I can safely tell you, without spoiling anything, that the book is centred around Nomi and her father. As I said, they’re Mennos. The father is a good Menno, has never missed church. The girl’s older sister left home some time before, and her mother left home not long after. Both were excommunicated from the church. The book simply examines the way they deal with the situation.

Part of the reason I didn’t like the book is that it’s about Mennos. It would be very easy for someone to read the book and come away feeling superior to them. That may not have been Toews’ intention, but it would be very easy for someone to do. You could read the book, and come away thinking “Wow, Mennos are really backwards, aren’t they?” And then you could spend the rest of the day feeling smug and superior. I don’t feel superior to them, because I don’t feel superior to anyone. Andrea pointed out that she didn’t feel superior, partly because Mennos aren’t that much different from Baptists. If we were to go off and create our own town somewhere, with only Baptists allowed, we might live similarly to them. Of course, the fact that we wouldn’t go off and start a town like that is part of what makes Baptists different from Mennos. But I’m not trying to compare us, nor to judge superiority of one over the other. I’m just relaying Andrea’s thoughts on whether people might come away from the book feeling superior. I guess I should also mention that Toews came from a Menno town, and therefore I assume she writes with a certain amount of authority.

Part of the reason I didn’t like the book is that Toews does a good job of relaying the voice of a 16 year old girl. Especially the kind that would skip school more often than she went, and smoke a lot of pot—the kind of girl that I would have enjoyed hanging out with, when I was 16. Why don’t I like that she did such a good job? Well… have you ever read the writings of a 16 year old? The best one can usually say is that it shows promise. And I just read 246 pages of it.

Part of the reason I didn’t like the book is that Nomi and her father are having a lot of problems dealing with the loss of Nomi’s sister and mother. I won’t say that they’re descending into madness, or anything like that, but I will say that they’re not acting normally. Some might say that the book is an excellent portrayal of two people, and how they deal with their grief; to me, it seems too over the top, and therefore unrealistic. Then again, who am I to say?

So I’ll sum up the review the way I started it: The book is very good, and I didn’t like it.