Saturday, June 20, 2009


I recently wrote a post about my slow warming to CanLit. Many of my recent reading selections have been by Canadian authors. This has not been intentional. In fact, it has been completely random.

The one exception was A Complicated Kindness. I specifically chose it because of the author, Miriam Toews. I was anxious to read her as I had heard great things about her stuff. I thought A Complicated Kindness was a good place to start since it won the Governor General's award for literature in 2004.

Here's where it gets complicated. This is an exceptionally good book...except I didn't like it. I didn't really know that was possible. It is an exceedingly well written first person narrative. The thing about first person narrative is that you don't really get a fully rounded view of the characters and the context of the story because it is told from only one perspective. In this case, it is the perspective of a teenage girl, Nomi. If that weren't enough to skew the viewpoint, Nomi and her family are Mennonites. Except Nomi is bristling under the rules (as most teenagers will), and coping with the community, and particularly the spiritual leader (who also happens to be her uncle) who view her family as not fitting desired family characteristics.

Here is my dilemma. Nomi's voice is very strong. Toews does a bang up job of layering teenage girl angst, need to rebel, conflict with the family she comes from and how she and the family unit as a whole fits, with the additional pressure of the requirements of the religion her family has pledged to live by. You would imagine that maybe this is a little autobiographical (Toews grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba). As I said, very well written.

However, I just didn't like it. I didn't particularly like Nomi. I didn't like the other characters. I found myself losing interest in what was going on about half way through the book. I was never sure if it was about this girl or a commentary on Mennonite culture. I was appreciating the writing, just not so interested in the story.

That being said, I am not willing to give up on Toews, particularly because the writing is so good. I am going to try The Flying Troutmans. I previewed the first chapter using an online/mobile e-reading application called Shortcovers. (Full Disclosure: I'm doing some consulting for Shortcovers). I am a bit more hooked than I was with this one.

I know. It's a little complicated.

A Complicated Kindness
Miriam Toews
Knopf Canada