A Complicated Kindness
by Miriam Toews; reading at Powell's City of Books,
1005 W Burnside, Sunday
Sept. 25, 7:30 pm

When I read A Complicated Kindness I didn't know what I was getting into. I had no idea who Miriam Toews was or what Mennonite families were like (they're like an older, more interesting version of the Amish). I had no idea that her book, which won Canada's prestigious Governor General's Award, would pierce my heart so deeply, burrowing in, to live there for a long time.

Told in the voice of the loveably awkward teenager Nomi Nickel, Toews' fourth book is about the emotional pull of family and faith that competes with Nomi's desire to experience life without so many rules. Her sister and mother have already been shunned by the church (or gone "missing" as Nomi delicately puts it), and the only thing that keeps her from running away is loyalty to her father.

Toews lived a life not far removed from Nomi's. She grew up in a small Mennonite village in Canada and found herself rebelling. A Complicated Kindness is an enjoyable and often hilarious look at life as an outsider. "It's funny when I get 85-year-old conservative Mennonite women who say, 'Yeah, that was exactly my life, too,'" says Toews from her home in Winnipeg. "In the community that I grew up in it was so easy to be labeled rebellious... smoking cigarettes, drinking in the bushes, going out with boys. I wasn't really doing it to say, 'fuck you, world, fuck you, parents.' It was more about the people I liked to hang out with."

Toews expertly illustrates the manic feelings and secret dreams of her female lead. Sometimes Nomi's antics result in embarrassing moments. "I think I am often that way myself," she says. "In fact, I've come to a point where I think awkwardness is the most authentic thing we can experience as human beings. It's something I haven't outgrown. It's a baggage a lot of Mennonites have. We can act a little bit and pretend we know what's what to a certain degree but there's a huge disconnect, and I think we always feel like a bit of a hick." KEVIN SAMPSELL